The modest but stately cottage on the southern slope of Mt. McGregor has almost always offered scenery and serenity to its visitors.
It was that way in 1885 when U.S. Grant moved into what was then the Drexel Cabin in northern Saratoga County, and in the 133 years since, the setting has remained, almost without fail, terrific and tranquil. The views will be mostly the same, but some of that peace may be at risk, albeit in a good way. Thanks to two popular Grant biographies in the last two years and its designation as a Literary Landmark in 2017, the Grant Cottage State Historic Site may become the place to be for history buffs in 2018.
"We're expecting a lot of interest based on the success of the books," said Grant Cottage State Historic Site Director Melissa Swanson, referring to "American Ulysses: A Life of U.S. Grant," by Ronald C. White and "Grant," by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow. "We're thrilled to have Ron White coming here for an event, and obviously we're thrilled to have the guy who wrote the biography of Hamilton also turn out a book on Grant."
Owned by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and maintained by the Friends of Grant Cottage, the site attracted 6,568 visitors in 2017, more than 1,000 more than the 5,398 it drew in 2016. White, well known as an Abraham Lincoln biographer, published his book on Grant in October of 2016, and in September of 2017, the site earned the distinction of being named a New York State Literary Landmark by United for Libraries and the Empire State Center for the Book. Then, less than a month later in October, Chernow followed up with the publication of his book on the former Civil War general and U.S. president.
"We've actually hired on a new development and events assistant with the help we've received from a grant from the Parks and Trails New York," said Swanson, who begins her second full year at Grant Cottage when it opens for the season on Memorial Day. "We're expecting a very busy year, and we have some new exhibits in the visitor center. In the past we've focused on the cottage as a place where somebody died. It was, however, also a place where a family lived for six weeks in 1885."
With two such noted authors writing books about Grant in the last two years, Bob Conner, formerly a site interpreter and now a docent at Grant Cottage, may find his audience a bit more knowledgeable about the subject than in past years.
"People often ask about Grant's drinking, which is a controversial area because many defenders of Grant's reputation bristle at the question, pointing out that many of the drinking stories are exaggerations or fabrications," said Conner, a former Daily Gazette writer who recently produced his own novel about Grant's last days on Mt. McGregor, "The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant." "Some people are surprised to learn that Grant owned a slave in the 1850s, and set the man free in 1859 at a time when he badly needed money."
Those are aspects of Grant's life covered by both Chernow and White, but a trip to Grant Cottage will also give your a real sense of the man, as well as a great view from the scenic overlook just a few yards away from the visitor center. The site opens Saturday, May 26.
Saratoga National Historical Park
The area's three biggest historic attractions, the Saratoga National Historical Park, Fort Ticonderoga and the Fort William Henry Museum, will have been up and running for a few weeks by the time Grant Cottage opens its doors.
At the national park that commemorates the 1777 Battles of Saratoga, Chief of Interpretation Lisa Dittman says park rangers will be focusing more on the lives of soldiers and their camp followers, as opposed to the military maneuvers that back in September and October of 1777 changed the course of world events.
"We're going to have a lot of living history out on Stop 2 and 6 of the auto tour," said Dittman, who added that admission to the park is free this year. "Also, we're going to have a more informal tour of the Schuyler House this summer for people who don't have the time to make one of our three, guided tours of the home, and the Saratoga Monument will only be open on weekends and Memorial Day."
Dittman said that the park attracted 98,000 visitors in 2017, a small increase from 2016. The park also includes visits to the Schuyler Mansion in Schuylerville and the Saratoga Monument in the village of Victory.
At Fort Ticonderoga on the southern end of Lake Champlain, director Beth Hill expects another big year after drawing around 75,000 visitors in 2017.
"We want people to be inspired by learning about our past, and we want them to celebrate the beauty of our region," said Hill. "We're going to have a big living history event on May 5 and 6, and we're going to be highlighting the capture of the fort by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, but we're also going to look at it from both sides. We also have some great exhibits this year, including our regular tours and musket firings. We have 2,000 acres and two miles of shoreline so there is a lot to see."
Tickets to Fort Ticonderoga also give patrons an opportunity to visit Mt. Defiance for a breathtaking view of the fort.
Fort William Henry Museum
While Ticonderoga was used in both the American Revolution and the French and Indian War (when it was controlled by the French and called Fort Carillon), Fort William Henry was built in 1755, destroyed in 1757 and wasn't rebuilt until two centuries later.
"We had a big year in 2017 because we were celebrating the 260th anniversary of our surrender," said director Melody Viele, who added that the fort and its museum attracted around 50,000 visitors last year, up a bit from 44,000 in 2016. "We're hoping to match that number this year and we do have a lot going on."
Along with a number of staff people in period costume and reenactors, the fort's museum has a series of exhibits, including one with military uniforms long after all the action told in James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" took place.
"We're going to have World War I and World War II costumes on display to indicate that the legacy of people serving their country continues," said Viele. "We'll still have the military clothes from the 18th century, but we're adding to them uniforms from more modern conflicts. It's also a way to remind people that veterans and military members, firemen and policemen all get in free here."
Saratoga National Historical Park
WHERE: 648 Route 32, town of Stillwater
WHEN: Open throughout the year, daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m
HOW MUCH: Admission is free
MORE INFO: www.nps.gov/sara, (518) 670-2985
WHERE: 102 Fort Ti Rd., Ticonderoga
WHEN: Open May 5 through Oct. 31, daily, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $24, $22 seniors, $10 children (5-12)
MORE INFO: www.fortticonderoga.org, (518) 585-2821
Fort Willliam Henry Museum
WHERE: Canada St., Lake George
WHEN: Open May 7 through Oct. 28, daily, 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $17, $14 seniors, $8 children (5-15)
MORE INFO: www.fwhmuseum.com, (518) 668-5471
Grant Cottage State Historic Site
WHERE: 1000 Mt. McGregor Rd., Wilton
WHEN: Open May 26 through Labor Day, Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (also open on Tuesday during the Saratoga racing season
HOW MUCH: $6, $5 seniors and students
MORE INFO: www.grantcottage.org, (518) 584-4353