The Stalwart Ladies of Grant Cottage
by Melissa Trombley-Prosch, Site Historian
When I was in the Cottage’s basement recently, I couldn’t help but recall how matter-of-factly caretaker Martha Clarke and her unofficially adopted daughter Suye Narita had dealt with the challenges of living on Mount McGregor.
Suye, a Japanese immigrant who entered the U.S. in 1907, had joined the Clarke family in 1914 at the age of 13 when she arrived for treatment of her tuberculosis at the newly opened Metropolitan Life Insurance Sanitarium. The young girl, separated from her biological family, fell in love with the mountain and formed a loving bond with the childless Clarkes. Suye was eventually pronounced cured at the age of eighteen and by that time had found a permanent home and employment on the mountain.
Martha (called Josie by family and friends) found herself a widow at the age of 70 when her husband Oliver (O.P.) died on May 13, 1917. At the time of his death, she had spent twenty-seven years working at O.P.’s side, giving tours and caring for the Cottage. Martha had become an expert on the Civil War, a Grant historian in her own right, and kept an impressive reference library in the family quarters on the second floor. Her knowledge, experience and strength of character convinced the trustees of the Mount McGregor Memorial Association to hire her as the next caretaker – not a small accomplishment in the first two decades of the 20th century when women still did not have the right to vote.
Life at Grant Cottage in 1917 meant there was no running water or electricity. Those utilities had been provided seasonally during the Hotel Balmoral years until it burned in 1897. A two-story lavatory lean-to addition had been built onto the Cottage for Grant’s 1885 visit and operated by gravity flow from the hotel’s water supply at the top of the hill. The Clarke family used a toilet with a removable pail until a chemical toilet was installed in the lean-to addition around 1928. The water supply for domestic and drinking purposes was supplied by collecting rain water falling from the roof into a cistern. The difficulty in establishing a water supply from the sanitarium to the Cottage was documented by the State in correspondence dated 1928: “About 325 feet of trench is required to pipe water from Sanitarium to Cottage. Of this, 65 feet is solid rock right to the surface but in remainder it will be possible to trench 1 foot deep without encountering rock.”
Although the house had been partially wired for electric lights in 1885, there had been no electrical service available since 1897; kerosene lamps were used instead. There also was no telephone service at the Cottage until the late 1920’s.
In 1930, lightning struck the Cottage. A letter of June 26 recounting the incident notes: “A sharp thunderstorm last week struck the aerial to the radio and broke one of the tubes. The lightning protector to the telephone was blown all over the kitchen. Mr. Frick thinks those wires saved the house. There was no fire from either.”
The kitchen used by the Clarkes was the southwest room used by Grant’s male nurses as a bedroom in 1885. The room’s original door was solid wood and was so ill-fitted that cold drafts and rain entering the room were ongoing problems. It was not replaced with a proper-fitting door (with a window to allow more light into the kitchen) until 1931. Storm windows were placed on the Cottage that same year.
The coal burning furnace was the original one installed in 1890. Martha notes to a state official in a 1929 letter: “Doctor Ordway is destressed [sic] because we have had so much gas from the furnace – thinks maybe a large part of my illness comes from that. We have had a great deal this spring, and it did nearly kill the canaries.” The Cottage chimney was rebuilt later that year to address the problem of ongoing coal gas leakage.
In a letter dated February 9, 1933, Frederick Richards, the Secretary-Treasurer of the New York State Historical Association wrote to a state official: “The reason for my inquiry was a most pathetic tale told to me about the primitive conditions at Grant’s Cottage, no running water or conveniences of many sorts, and the only inmates being an aged woman too old to do much work and a little Japanese girl who had to do it all, including stoking the heater, lugging up the ashes, etc., etc.”
As the Mount McGregor Memorial Association had become less active, New York State increased its oversight of the Cottage. The follow-up letter to Richards noted: “There are many things at Mount McGregor which, were it not for the fact that Mrs. Clarke is the widow of the former G.A.R. caretaker and opposed to any change whatever, I would be glad to make. She feels that everything, including the dilapidated curtains, loose wallpaper, worn-out rugs, etc., should be kept exactly as they were at the time of General Grant’s death and although she appreciates that these articles must be renewed, she has often expressed the thought that she would prefer to see any renovation deferred until after her death.”
Martha recorded in a 1934 letter that visitor feedback reflected her conviction that the Cottage should remain in its original state as much as possible: “Many times I have been told by visitors that they like to come here better than to many other historic places they have visited because it has not been restored, but is just as it was originally.”
Suye made an unsuccessful attempt to become an American citizen in 1938 through U.S. Congressional legislation. The bill was never allowed to come to a vote, despite her testimony before the House Immigration Committee in February of that year. In failing health, Martha died on August 11, 1941 at the age of 93. Suye was appointed temporary custodian on August 14. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year, beginning U.S. involvement in WWII. Suye was designated an enemy alien and interned on Mount McGregor for the duration of the war. She never wavered in her commitment to her adopted country (finally being allowed to become a U.S. citizen in 1953) or to Grant Cottage, later permanently entrusted to her care. Subsequent generations owe a great deal to these two stalwart ladies.