I’ve recently seen the Mississippi River. And Ulysses S. Grant’s bathtub. Both can be found in northwest Illinois in the lovely little city of Galena where I took my 20-something daughter. Our hotel view of the great river was so magnificent I eagerly set out to get a closer look. But as the bugs emanating from the nearby woods had complete disrespect for insect repellent I gave up quickly, like a city slicker, and contented myself with the beautiful vista from our room and the indoor pool.
I did, however, get fairly close to that bathtub. The modest red-brick house that Grant had once called home was so small I was surprised when Frank, our tour guide, told us that it had been gift from the city of Galena to the conquering Civil War hero. Perhaps it was the best this modest city could do for its most famous son.
Frank showed us the library first. Two of the four walls were covered by glass-encased bookshelves. Many of the books here—and most of the home’s furniture for that matter--had personally belonged to the Grants. Readers often become writers and here was the personal library of the future memoirist whose writing was so good his book has never gone out of print. Any reading would have been done at the round table in the center of the room upon which sat a 15-pound Bible.
Perhaps the room did not reek of comfort, but it most likely smelled of cigar smoke while the Grants lived there: an elaborate waist-high ashtray stood between the window and the table.
The parlor was next. The seats were low to the ground, Frank said, simply because people were shorter back then. All but one of the chairs was black, covered with a woven combination of horse hair and silk, highly durable but apparently uncomfortable. Notably, Grant’s favorite chair, covered with plush green cloth, stuck out like a sore thumb in that room of slightly scary upholstery. Grant was a soldier, first and last, but he obviously enjoyed comfort when and where he could find it. Grant and his wife, Julia, had received crowds of people in this smallish room and I wondered how. Perhaps their Lilliputian stature came into play or maybe they had an affinity for claustrophobic social gatherings.
After leaving the small dining room—the table set with the Grants’ own china—Frank sent us off to tour the bedrooms upstairs on our own.
Each of Grant’s four children had their own room, complete with a chamber pot. Who emptied them out, I wondered? The Grants themselves or perhaps their “help.” In the next room, the kitchen, we learned that while the Grants did hire servants, these folks lived elsewhere. Seriously, where would they have put any live-in “help”?
Behind the kitchen was a bathtub, the view of which could be accessed by leaning over the railing in front of the kitchen. “How often do you get to see where a former president took a bath?” Frank quipped. Not often. We all leaned over and took a look. The entire family bathed in this tub and in the same water, beginning with the eldest, a custom not peculiar to the Grant family. Still, eewww.
The house was simple, straightforward, and seemed a perfect fit for the man who had once lived here, someone with little success in civilian life but who was such a natural-born military leader that he became a major force in winning the Civil War for the Union.