If you were taking a quiz and asked which president was from Missouri I hope would be able to answer Harry S Truman, but he wasn’t the only president who lived in the state. After graduating from West Point, a young Ulysses S. Grant was stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. As a promise to a schoolmate Grant rode out to visit the Dent family at their White Haven estate and pay his respects. He enjoyed himself so much that he returned on a weekly basis. The following spring, Julia Dent returned home from boarding school and the visits occurred on a daily basis. Julia was not the prettiest of the Dent daughters, but she was the best horsewoman. The couple began to court while riding along the creek that cut through the 850 acre plantation. When Grant learned he was being transferred in preparation for the Mexican-American War, he proposed. The couple were finally married in a Dent home in St. Louis in 1848.
Grant remained in the army after the war and was stationed in California for a time. Julia remained with her family at White Haven and gave birth to their first child, Jesse (eventually 3 of their 4 children would be born in this house). When Grant resigned his commission (1854), he built a cabin on the Dent property for his young family to live in. They remained only a few months and returned to the main house when Julia’s mother passed away. They remained in the home until 1860 when Grant went to work in his own father’s store in Ohio before he returned to the army in 1861.
The Grant’s had intentions of returning to White Haven as late as his second term as president. The barn on the property was built to house Grant’s prized horses and based on a design he had sketched on White House stationery. As it was being constructed, the house was painted a shade of green that Mrs. Grant had noticed and admired among the homes in Washington, D.C. The Grants never did return to Missouri though, instead settling in New York after he left office.
This field trip was near and dear to my heart. I grew up just up Grant’s Road and was very familiar with Grant’s Farm, his cabin, and the Clydesdales that were pastured there (Anheuser-Busch owns Grant’s Farm and used to breed horses for their Budweiser wagon team there).
I’d never visited White Haven though. The property had been sold to a private family and I’d never even seen the house as it was hidden from the road and Grant’s Farm parking lot by the barn. The property didn’t become available for public tours until the 1990’s.
We began our visit by watching a 16 minute movie about Grant’s life from his arrival at Jefferson Barracks until his death. He had a tragic ending—he lost the family savings in a bad Wall Street deal and developed throat cancer. He began work on his memoirs, hoping the proceeds would support his family after his passing. He finished them just a few days before he died.
Tours of the home are scheduled on the hour and half hour. The home itself is very sparsely furnished—most of the Grant’s furniture was lost in a fire while it was being stored on the Grant’s Farm property. In addition to the main house, you can tour the summer kitchen/laundry, icehouse, and chicken coop.
It was interesting to see the contrast between the doors of the family entrance to the home and the slave entrance. The Dents were slaveholders and Col. Dent even gave a slave to Grant at some point. Grant freed the man when he moved to Ohio (a free state). The ranger giving us the tour pointed out that Grant chose to free the man rather than sell him. My mother and I had been taught the Grant was a failure at business and farming and that’s why he had to move to Ohio, but the ranger said if Grant had truly been in such financial straits he could have sold the slave for up to $1500.
Of more interest to me were the exhibits in the barn. It may look like a horse stable on the outside, but the inside includes a first class museum.
You find portraits, family artifacts, and interactive displays from various eras in Grant’s life (not so much about his Civil War years). The exhibit below dealt with the four Grant children. You could listen to memories each child had about their presidential father. The display case and items of importance to each (one had a microscope while another cherished a story book).
I was keenly interested in a display about another widely held belief about Grant that may or may not be true. He is often portrayed (especially in Civil War movies) as a heavy drinker. The display doesn’t deny that Grant imbibed while he was stationed in California and depressed about the separation from his family. During the Civil War however, it appears that a Gen. Halleck (Grant’s superior officer) may have started the rumor about drunkenness when Grant was promoted for actions at Ft. Donelson and he wasn’t. When the rumor was published, Grant’s staff officers wrote it was “the most infamous and malicious falsehood that was ever uttered.” The Secretary of Way sent his own man to investigate the charges and he wrote “To the question they all ask: ‘Doesn’t he drink?’—I have been able, from my own knowledge to give a decided negative.” It may have in fact been Grant’s frequent migraine headaches or the doctor’s prescribing quinine (which can cause slurred speech and confusion) that may have led those aware of the rumor to assume he was drunk.
Schnickelfritz wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about reading all the information on the walls, but the museum was prepared for such a contingency. They had cubbies filled with hats and costumes for kids to try on and a full length mirror in which to view themselves.
The Ulysses S. Grant home is open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Admission is free.
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