If you like Ulysses S. Grant, you will love our upcoming book, Hottest Heads of State: The American Presidents. You can just read the chapter on Ulysses S. Grant and throw the rest away!
The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
Grantwood Village, MO
Adults: Free! | Children: Also free!
Kate: Our visit to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site began by J.D. making me sit in the car and wait while he drank a huge cup of coffee.
JD: Strictly speaking, it began with me making us stop to buy coffee, since I had done exhaustive research and learned that the U.S. Grant Site does not have a cafe.
Kate: When we (finally) went inside, I could tell J.D. had a lot of coffee that morning by the way he was voluntarily engaging in conversation with strangers.
JD: Well, it was partly that I was overcaffeinated, but it was also that after walking in the front entrance I’d immediately gotten off on the wrong foot with the park ranger, and I wanted to smooth things over.
Kate: I missed that because I was in the bathroom! (The bathrooms are very nice, if you happen to be in the suburb of Grantwood Village and are looking for a place to use the bathroom.) What happened?
JD: I asked for tickets, because their website says you need tickets for the tour of White Haven (which is Grant’s in-law’s house, and the place he met his future wife). But apparently you don’t need tickets, and the ranger assumed I was asking for tickets because I thought I was at Grant’s Farm, a totally separate tourist attraction across the street. As it turns out, this is because the U.S. Grant National Historic Site is a little…let’s say sensitive about Grant’s Farm.
Kate: Now I wish I had asked him, “Where do we get the free beer?”
JD: For those who don’t know, Grant’s Farm is an attraction that takes you on an open-air tram ride through a park filled with bison, elk, and other animals, then you’re dropped off in a mock Bavarian town and given beer, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch. The whole thing is free, except parking.
Kate: And apparently people try to avoid paying for parking at Grant’s Farm by parking at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site? That is the kind of insolence that President Grant would never put up with.
JD: I ended up having a long conversation with my new best friend the park ranger about this. Because of staffing cutbacks, they can no longer post a ranger in the parking lot to prevent illegal parking. That’s when I decided to start volunteering for the National Park Service by identifying illegal parkers and keying their cars.
Kate: That’s really going to cut into your time volunteering at our dry cleaner’s parking lot.
The House and Museum
Kate: Like many presidential museums, you are encouraged to begin your visit by watching a short movie. This movie was about the life of Ulysses S. Grant, which was thematically appropriate.
JD: My first reaction to the movie was admiration for their retractable movie screen. My second reaction was that the actor playing President Grant was not nearly handsome enough. My third reaction was that the actor playing a young Grant was, in fact, handsome enough.
Kate: I thought the movie was great.
JD: The movie was great. My favorite part was Grant arguing over the dinner table with his father-in-law about slavery, and the whole time he’s gripping his knife and getting increasingly angry. Did President Grant stab his father-in-law to death with a butter knife? You’ll just have to visit the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site to find out!
Kate: Now that our interest was piqued, it was time to take a tour of White Haven, to look for evidence of murder.
JD: We were the only visitors there, so the park ranger who does not like illegal parkers walked us up to the house. We started chatting about Missouri and the Civil War, and he mentioned the Camp Jackson Affair. I said “I don’t think I’m familiar with that,” because of course I’m not.
Kate: Twenty minutes later, we were both intimately familiar with the Camp Jackson Affair.
JD: False! I quite literally did not remember what it was until I looked it up on Wikipedia just now. Here is a summary in the form of a limerick I just wrote:
There once was a border state,
Whose guv’nor was full of hate.
He tried to seize arms,
This set off alarms,
So he fled the capital with a rump state legislature, which then “seceded” and “joined” the Confederacy, but since they no longer controlled Missouri it was largely a symbolic gesture, and to complete the rhyme I will again say the word “alarms.”
Kate: The tour of White Haven is self-guided, which means the park ranger waits outside on the back porch while you walk through the empty house, trying to figure out how soon you can leave without hurting the park ranger’s feelings.
JD: After reflecting on the fact that I was treading the same floorboards that Grant trod, we walked down to the old barn, which houses the museum proper.
Kate: When you arrive, the museum will be ready. It has been waiting for you, ready to suck you in and systematically dismantle everything you thought you knew about Ulysses S. Grant.
JD: In large part, the setup of the museum is “Oh, you’ve heard Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk? Let’s look at the evidence and see if that’s true.” “You’ve heard he was a butcher?” “You’ve heard he was prejudiced?” “You’ve heard he was a Sphinx?”
Kate: Now JD wants me write an segue introducing his rant about how Grant’s reputation has been dragged through the mud by historians who opposed Reconstruction and racial equality in general.
JD: He basically went from being a national hero at his death, to being viewed as a corrupt, drunken butcher. (And a Sphinx, I guess. A drunken Sphinx.) And that’s kind of what I expected when we showed up—that the museum’s message would be, “Well, Grant was awful, but every president deserves a historic site. I guess.”
Kate: That would look pretty great on a placard.
JD: Instead, the message was more “Grant was pretty great, especially because he helped win the Civil War, which was about slavery. He wasn’t perfect, but no one is! Especially you, since you’re probably planning to sneak across the street and visit Grant’s Farm.”
The Gift Shop
JD: The gift shop mainly carries books, about Grant, which is a mistake. Imagine you went to a restaurant that served really great pasta, and you ate a huge meal, and then as you were leaving they said “Hey buddy, want to buy some pasta?” This is literally the time when you are least inclined to buy pasta. You are already full of pasta, and similarly, I was full of Grant. What I really could have gone for, after spending a couple hours there, was some food. Maybe the gift shop should be selling pasta.
Kate: I noticed that they had a lot of Abraham Lincoln stuff. That made me feel sad for Ulysses S. Grant, not for the first time on this trip.
JD: They do, of course, carry the little wooden cup-and-ball toy that every presidential library gift shop carries. I found myself wondering where are these cup-and-ball toys are coming from, so I checked the label, and the answer is Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Kate: I’m not sure where you’re going with this.
JD: I think we should move to Bellows Falls and work for that company. Cup-and-ball toys seem like a recession-proof industry, unlike scented candles or humor books. It’s when people are the most down on their luck that they want to forget about their troubles with a rollicking game of cup-and-ball!
JD: As noted previously, the Grant Historic Site does not have a cafe. They don’t even sell old-timey rock candy or black licorice in the gift shop, like every other presidential site.
Kate: So if you’re going, bring your own licorice!
JD: Or just go across the street and get a bratwurst and free beer at Grant’s Farm.
Kate: You won’t even have to move your car! Just leave it at the Grant Historic Site. They love it when people do that.
JD: I wonder if the National Park Service would be open to us setting up a bratwurst stand in their parking lot. If nothing else, it would would help them stick it to Grant’s Farm.
Kate: I think we’d need to ease them into the idea. We could start by selling loose cigarettes in their parking lot, and then slowly work our way up to bratwursts.
Should I bring my kids?
Kate: We did NOT bring our kids with us to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. And it was heaven. It made me rethink ever bringing our kids anywhere ever again.
JD: When was the last time we got to spend 20 minutes talking to a stranger about the Camp Jackson Affair? I bet we’d be talking to people about the Camp Jackson Affair all the time if it weren’t for our kids. I could just wear a button that said “Ask me about the Camp Jackson Affair.”
Kate: For the sake of our research, I tried to imagine how our kids would have fared at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. And I think they would have been fine. Grant’s house is empty because all of his original furniture was destroyed in a fire, so there’s nothing left to be destroyed by your children.
JD: The museum has a bunch of fake owls in the rafters, presumably to scare off rodents. I think those would have intrigued the kids. Or, scared them off. Either way, more time for me to try on costumes representing countries Grant visited on his post-presidential around-the-world tour.
Kate: Overall, the U.S. Grant Historic site really hits that sweet spot of having enough kid-friendly stuff to keep your children occupied, but without being fun enough that they’ll be sad when it’s time to leave. And they really can’t do anything that will get them in trouble, except for illegal parking.
What would you change?
Kate: It’s hard to complain about a presidential museum that is totally free. What could they possibly owe me? That said, with such a meager gift shop and no cafe, it’s like they’re not even trying to take my money.
JD: I think they should have free beer. That would turn the lack of a cafe into a plus, because after a couple beers on an empty stomach, you’d be like, “Whoa, I’m a little tipsy, this is the perfect way to learn about Ulysses S. Grant, the notorious drunk!” But then you’d learn that Grant really wasn’t a drunk—at least not more than you, the person who gets tipsy at history museums—and you’d feel bad for judging him. And feeling bad for judging Grant is the whole point of the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site.
JD: If you are a nerd, like me, then you like it when history museums talk about why one historical narrative became dominant. The Grant site does this better than just about any museum I’ve ever visited, underscoring that the Civil War is a weird case where the losers wrote the history books, and the victors were like, “Fine, whatever, just don’t secede again.” Which is how we end up having a debate in 2017 over whether or not we should have monuments to men who raised armies and waged war against the United States for the cause of slavery.
Kate: Everyone should visit the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. It should be mandatory, like jury duty.
JD: Maybe that should be their slogan. “It’s like jury duty! You have to do it and there’s no cafe.”
Read the rest of this series:
JD and Kate Visit the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum
JD and Kate Visit the Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum
JD and Kate Visit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
JD and Kate Visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum