Back in Galena to visit some of the attractions that were not opened when we were there last March, Ruth and I started with The Grant House, the main tourist attraction in this hilly Illinois town. Grant spent relatively little time in this home. Our guide was Chuck, who seemed exceptionally well-informed. Waiting for a few more ladies to join our group, I asked Chuck what was the most common question he was asked. “Where’s the bathroom?” he joked in all seriousness.
Chuck began by giving us U.S. Grant’s family background. Born in Ohio and the son of a tanner, Grant managed to get a better education than these roots would suggest because he went to West Point where he graduated 21st in a class of 39. For some reason our group found this funny and laughed. Grant decided on a military career and immersed himself in the Mexican American War where he gained experience by being involved in 13 of its 14 major battles. This background surely helped him gain military success and national fame during the Civil War. But that didn’t happen immediately. Instead of rising in the military, Grant decided to become a Missouri farmer. He had courted and married his wife Julia in St. Louis and gained a successful but difficult father-in-law as a result.
In their 12th year of marriage, Ulysses and Julia moved their family to Galena where Grant hoped to make a success of working is a leather goods store with his brothers. He and Julia had 4 children to feed. They did not live in the house we were touring with Chuck. They rented a place on High Street. The Civil War broke out one year after this move, and Grant went on to military and presidential glory.
I can’t think of a former President who has been the subject of more recent books than Grant. There seems to be great deal of contemporary interest in him. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he is being added to the presidential quartet on Mount Rushmore
Chuck told us that the Grants owned 70% of the stuff we were seeing. One brochure told me that 90% of the furnishings were original to this house built in 1860 on Bouthillier Street for a Galena City Clerk named Alex Jackson. After the Civil War turned Grant into a national hero, a group of Galena locals bought this furnished home and gifted it to the Grants. They kept it for their local voting residence and visited here briefly when he campaigned. They returned to Galena after a post-presidential world tour but then moved to New York City. Grant died in 1885 from throat cancer. Chuck told us that he smoked 15 to 20 cigars each day. A sign in the home said that “he would only eat beef”, and his cook reported that the more it was burned, the better he liked it.
Reportedly, 80,000 people pass through this well-promoted Galena attraction each year to see the ugly green chair that Chuck told us was Grant’s favorite. He liked to sit in it so much that he had it moved to the White House when he was President. I understand this.
The painting of Grant Leaving Galena in 1861 was created by Harry Eckman.