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Local

A door to the past reopens: Galena's Grant Home welcoming guests again

GALENA – Illinois may be the Land of Lincoln, but Honest Abe isn't the only U.S. president who once called this Midwestern state home.

Before Ulysses S. Grant became a legendary Civil War general, and later helped bring together a nation torn apart by the Civil War, he was a clerk at his father’s tannery business in Galena.

The 18th president moved to The Prairie State in spring 1860. He and his wife Julia rented a modest brick home in Galena while he worked for his father’s business. Grant would spend only a year in Galena, but during that time, the wheels were set in motion that eventually would take him on a historic journey to the highest ranks of the military, and the highest office in the land.

While visiting the home, you also can take in the sights, sounds and tastes of a town that serves up natural beauty and authentic history, events and attractions, specialty shops, and plenty of places to grab a bite to eat. It’s no wonder the city attracts nearly a million visitors a year.

The Grant Home, newly built in 1860 – originally as a residence for the city clerk – was rented by the Grants for $100 a year. He left the following spring to serve in the Army, rising through the ranks and eventually playing a key role in the Union victory. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Galena in 1865, and was presented the house as a gift by a group of local Republicans who bought it for $2,500.

Although he would return to Galena only occasionally after being elected president, last visiting in 1880, he continued to use the home as his official political and voting address, remarking of Galena in 1873, "although it is probable I will never live much time among you, but in the future be only a visitor as I am at present … I hope to retain my residence here … I expect to cast my vote here always."

Caretakers maintained the house, ensuring it was always ready for the president’s visits. One local newspaper at the time reported that it was "in excellent order and ready for occupation at any time," adding that "visitors are always admitted."

Today, visitors still are admitted – the home reopened on July 15 after being closed because of the pandemic.

According to the home’s website,“the restored U. S. Grant Home is a two-story brick structure. The first floor consists of entry hall, parlor, dining room, library, kitchen with pantry, and staff room. The second floor contains five bedrooms, one with a connecting dressing room.

All of the rooms are decorated and furnished to represent a mid-1860s appearance. Many of the furnishings belonged to the Grant family. In 1960 the Home was designated a National Historic Landmark and in 1966 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Since reopening, the Grant Home – owned and managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources — is taking several precautionary measures to cope with COVID-19.

“We're usually open year round,” site manager Terry Miller said. “This year, with COVID-19, things are a little different. Being a state-owned facility, we took direction on everything from the governor's office.”

The Grant Home has limited its hours to Sunday through Wednesday on a reduced schedule, taking on six tours per day. Tours are first-come first-serves, with no reservations, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The size of tour groups also are limited to a maximum of 10 people per tour and guests must wear masks.

Social distancing guidelines also will be enforced while on the property.

“The Grant tour will be given outdoors, and guests will be allowed to walk through the home while social distancing. Congregating inside the home in any room will be prohibited and frequently touched surfaces will be disinfected between each tour.”

The U.S. Grant Historic Sites offers more than just the president's home.

The house is part of the three-block Grant Home Historic Neighborhood that includes several small mid-19th century homes. There’s also Grant State Park, south of the Grant Home, where visitors can have a picnic and see Long House, a circa 1851 log cabin that was moved to the site from nearby Elizabeth in 1976. There, house guests can see what a typical settler’s home in Jo Daviess County looked like.

Other Grant-related sites include the DeSoto House Hotel, at 203 S. Main St. Not only is it the oldest operating hotel in Illinois – opening in 1855 – rooms 209 and 211served as Grant’s presidential campaign headquarters.

Elsewhere, the Washburne House was home to Grant's political adviser and former U.S. congressman Elihu B. Washburne. Visitors will have to wait to see the inside of this historic building, though because it remains closed for the season because of the pandemic.

“We don't have the staffing to open the Washburne Home on a regular basis,” Miller said. “Out of concern for the health and safety of our volunteers, we've decided to keep the home closed for this season.”

The change is just one of the many realities in a time in which the latest war isn’t civil, but scientific, as the world battles an invisible enemy.

Like the man the Grant Home celebrates, the staff there aren’t ready to surrender. They’ve had to retreat and regroup, but now they’re ready to welcome visitors to to their historic homefront in a town where the past and the present intersect at what’s been called by more than one national magazine one of the “Most Beautiful Main Streets” in the U.S.

Pay a visit

The Ulysses S. Grant Home, 500 Bouthillier St. in Galena, is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Tours are limited to 10 people at a time, first come, first served, with tour times at 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., and at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 p.m.

Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children.

Call 815-777-3310, go to granthome.org or find the home on Facebook for more information.
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