WILTON - The hands of a clock on the mantle inside the parlor at Grant Cottage are frozen at 8:08, the moment the United States’ 18th president took his final breath.
Time, though, has marched on since July 23, 1885, the day Ulysses S. Grant died while lying in his bed in the two-story house atop Mount McGregor.
It has taken its toll, too.
The cottage’s foundation, a precarious combination of stone and dirt, is flooded and crumbling. Second-floor ceilings and walls are stained by leaking water. Outside, the building’s mustard-yellow paint is flaking, laying bare the wood beneath.
Lance Ingmire, a Stillwater resident who became president of the volunteer group Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage four months ago, said he was “heartbroken” when he first saw the building’s condition.
Inspired, he has become a self-described “professional beggar,” asking anyone who will listen to invest time and money in the state-owned historic site, which opened in 1878 as an inn run by Duncan McGregor.
“Right now, we’re in a situation where Mother Nature has begun to reclaim this site,” said Ingmire, whose great-grandfather brought Grant’s body down off the mountain after his death. “We can’t allow that to happen.”
In the short term, Ingmire said, he needs money to clean up and landscape the grounds and to address the runoff problems that plague the visitors center. Standing water has been a frequent issue at the center since its opening in 1995.
On a more costly scale is a vision that involves replicating the narrow-gauge railroad tracks that once carried visitors to the top of the mountain, a vista touted as one of Grant’s last sights. There is also the restoration of the cottage itself.
“It would be spectacular to get this place back to the way it was in his day,” Ingmire said, during a visit last week to the cottage where, suffering from throat cancer, Grant wrote the final pages of his memoirs. “When we do, this place will become a destination.”
Realizing that dream could take hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when public money is scarce, but supporters say they are undeterred.
They are looking to build the ranks of the volunteer group that leases the property from the state and oversees its operation, building partnerships with area schools and organizing fundraisers like the sale of paintings of the cottage by local artist JC
Mike Dennis, who serves as a resident liaison to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said he will also scour for allies in the business community who could help finance work at the site.
“Obviously, this will be very difficult in these trying times, and there are some real challenges that will have to be overcome,” Dennis said, standing on the cottage’s porch. “But we will do whatever we need to do as a community to preserve this historic site.”
Pleas for support have elicited some private donations in the run-up to the cottage’s May 29 opening, and town officials in Wilton are considering whether the town can contribute.
Membership in the volunteer group has meanwhile swelled to more than 400 and, last year, a record 2,900 visitors drove past the security checkpoint for the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility to stand in the room where Grant died.
Melissa Trombley, who organized a petition drive in the late 1980s to get the state to acknowledge the importance of the property, said the progress made since its opening has been nothing short of miraculous.
“In the beginning, it was like we were dreaming too big, but look how things can change,” she said.
The momentum can’t be lost, though, and more needs to be done to ensure the site is not forgotten or allowed to deteriorate further, Trombley, Ingmire and other supporters of the cottage say.
The volunteer group’s budget of about $40,000 a year — money raised through admissions, gift shop sales and donations — might not be enough to finance the kind of plans that are envisioned.
The hope is that enough can be raised to create an endowment fund that would help the volunteer group pay for repairs at the site.
“We can’t take our eye off the ball,” Ingmire said. “It takes somebody to bring this to the public and to say, ‘We can’t allow our treasures to deteriorate.’ ”