Up near the top of Mount McGregor, in the shadow of a state prison, Grant Cottage draws around 3,000 visitors a year to see the place where Ulysses S. Grant died.
That’s not many by modern tourism standards.
But the state historical site in Wilton where the Civil War general and former president died of cancer in 1885 was once a place of pilgrimage. In the decades after Grant died, former Civil War soldiers flocked there with their families.
“This was a very sacred place,” said Steve Trimm, a volunteer tour guide at Grant Cottage. “It would have been similar to a Vietnam veteran going to the Vietnam Memorial or to visiting Arlington. When they visited, it was to pay tribute to him, and he stood for all the veterans of the Civil War.”
But as those old soldiers faded from the scene, visitors still came for the profoundly human story of a great but humble man dying, swindled broke and rushing to finish the memoir — one that turned out to be a classic — of his Army years. For nearly 100 years, caretakers lived at the cottage to greet visitors and tell the Grant story.
Trimm has just published a booklet, “Saving Grant’s Cottage,” about the interlinked caretakers who guided visitors from when the cottage opened in 1890 until the 1980s, when the era of live-in caretakers finally passed.
Those who lived on the mountain, with its spectacular view of the upper Hudson Valley, included a former soldier who survived the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., his wife and a young Japanese woman who came to Mount McGregor for tuberculosis treatment and found herself declared an “enemy alien” during World War II.
“In the five years I’ve been a tour guide, I slowly learned these secondary stories, and I thought there was another story to be told here,” said Trimm, a retired state mental health worker.
Oliver Clarke was the first caretaker.
Originally from rural central New York, he had fought for the Union and could count himself lucky to be alive. He was taken prisoner twice, at Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. Clarke survived a winter at Andersonville, where at least 12,000 prisoners died of starvation, despair and guards’ sadism, as Clarke told in a 49-page handwritten account.
After the war, Clarke became a lawyer and leading advocate for veterans’ rights and benefits, but his health never recovered from Andersonville. When it became clear that Grant Cottage would need a public face, fellow veteran leaders recommended Clarke. They thought the fresh mountain air would do him good — and it probably did. He lived until 1917, giving tours until nearly the end.
“Oliver developed a reputation not only as an excellent tour guide but as a man of great charm and wit. It was noted with approval that when he wrote letters to friends, he invariably ended them with a joke,” Trimm writes.
After Clarke’s death, his wife, Martha Josephine Clarke, took over as guide. She would live until the age of 93, dying in 1941.
Suye Narita had come into the childless couple’s lives in 1914, when, as a 13-year-old whose family had moved from Japan to the U.S., she came to the brand-new Metropolitan Life Insurance tuberculosis sanitarium just up the hill, where the prison is now. Her family had been sponsored a few years earlier by Josephine’s older sister, a medical doctor and Christian missionary.
The Clarkes became “Uncle Ollie” and “Aunt Jo” to the young girl, Trimm recounts, and Suye grew up to be a Grant scholar in her own right.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Grant Cottage was searched and Suye’s radio taken away. Friends testified to her loyalty and good character, so she was classified as an “enemy alien” but allowed to remain at the cottage.
During the war, a sister would die of cancer in an Arizona internment camp, and a nephew who was allowed to join the Japanese-American unit of the army would be killed in Italy. Her sister’s two young daughters came to live with Suye. Trimm says they’re still remembered, the only Japanese students at Saratoga Springs High School at the time.
In 1951, Suye married Anthony Gambino, a veteran who came to Mount McGregor as a patient at the military rest camp that replaced the sanitarium after the war.
Suye passed away in 1984, and her husband died in 1987, ending the era of resident caretakers at Grant Cottage.
Today, the cottage is kept open Wednesdays through Sundays in summer and on fall weekends by the Friends of Grant Cottage, a private nonprofit run by volunteers. Trimm’s book is available at the cottage.