With the Ulysses S. Grant and the Lincoln Home National Historic Sites only about 100 miles apart, I took a couple of days to explore the homes of these two presidents. When I visited National Parks while I was still working, and thus had limited leisure time, I usually opted out of Ranger-led tours and park-offered movies. Now that I find myself with more time to explore however, I’m learning, and enjoying the places I visit, so much more!
First up: The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, just outside of St. Louis. It is the site of White Haven, the Grant homestead from 1854-1859. Before Grant was a famous General, and then, President of the United States, it was here where he met his future wife, Julia Dent. According to the NPS website, in the 1850s, the farm included 850 acres. Though only a few acres now, five historic buildings from the 19th century still remain, including the original house and the summer kitchen.
While a student at the Military Academy at West Point, Grant became good friends with Fred Dent, Julia’s brother. It was through a visit to Fred’s home that Grant met Julia. According to the Ranger-led tour, it was quite an education for both Ulysses, who grew up in an abolitionist family in the free state of Ohio, and Julia, who had been raised in privilege, being served by, and whose lifestyle was sustained by, enslaved people in the slave state of Missouri. According to the White House Historical Association, Ulysses’ ties to the family farm also connects him to his father-in-law’s slave labor, and the actual owning of enslaved persons for a time. Thankfully, his time with the Dent family farm was short-lived and his experience with the courage, even in the face of unequal treatment, of African American troops in the Civil War seemed to solidly turned him against slavery later in life.
Staying with the Presidential theme, I headed north to Springfield, IL to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. More than just the building of the only home he ever owned, this park is 4.5 blocks of the neighborhood once inhabited by Abraham Lincoln and his family. The house itself was built in 1839 by the reverend who would later marry Abe and Mary Todd in 1843, and then sell them the house the next year.
Ranger-led guided tours really help you to put the home, and the Lincoln family dynamics and position in society, into perspective as they relay stories from primary source articles and drawings while touring the home. By including more than just the single Lincoln dwelling in the park, the NPS really helps to paint the picture of the type of community into which Abe developed into a man and politician. The “neighborhood was diverse, representing many occupations and social and economic levels.” One of his neighbors, James Jenkins was a freedman and a conductor on the underground railroad.
I met a bright young woman named Sarah, dressed in period attire, while taking a break on a bench in the park. Though only 18, she was a volunteer in the park and was enrolled in college to pursue history and acting. We chatted for about an hour, then she stood and gave a short oratory on the underground railroad. Did I mention this is on a Sunday? So refreshing to see someone so young dedicated to pursuing her passion 🙂
From the National Park, I strolled a few blocks through downtown Springfield to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Being Sunday, the Library was closed, but thankfully, the Museum was open for business. In addition to all the artifacts and exhibits about Lincoln’s life and Presidency, there are two theaters in the museum that bring the experience to life. The event, Ghosts of the Library, about the artifacts in the Presidential Library, is one of the best hologram exhibitions I have ever seen. Though I couldn’t find a full-length version of the film online, click HERE for a 2-minute overview of the museum that includes a snippet and gives a sense of how truly interactive the museum is.
I wish I would have found history this interesting back when I was in school…life sure would’ve been easier!