Mary Beth Writes


Early in October some personal stars that Len and I had not been considering … aligned. I felt GOOD which was newly amazing. (Still is.) By persistently being himself (I’ll post the story another day) Len saved some bucks on a traffic ticket. We’d been talking about visiting Galena. I came home from a walk, Len was in a good mood about the ticket, I suggested Galena. Len said yes. He’s a tough sell like that.

I can’t talk about Galena without talking about Ulysses Grant, who lived in that city during some of the most important years of his life. I love smart, family-loving, bad-habit-riddled, slow-blooming almost-losers so let me tell you about Grant. He was, as you remember, the Union General credited for leading the North to win the Civil War and he was also our 18th President.

I love this guy. Born in the early 1800’s into a not-privileged family in southern Ohio, he LOVED horses. As a teenager he bought and sold them the way my son occasionally came home with a new car - bought with the proceeds from his previous car.

Young Ulysses often rode fifty or more miles from home by himself to do errands, see a horse he’d heard about, or visit others. In his autobiography he mentions - and you can almost hear old man Grant laughing as he wrote about it - the time he bought an awesome cool horse more than a two-day ride from home. The new horse was scared and wild; it kicked and reared. An older man accompanying Ulysses abandoned him because he didn’t want to get hurt by the uncontrollable horse.

Young Ulysses fought the horse while thinking. Finally, he took off his bandanna and tied it around the scared animal’s head, then led that horse two days home. When a situation was crazy and dangerous, and the prudent people were leaving the area, Ulysses stayed to figure out possible next steps.

His dad finagled Ulysses into the US Military Academy at West Point, NY. Ulysses was not wild about the option, but he went. He was an iffy student; he’d graduate #26 out of a class of 39 men. He didn’t read many of his assignments because, he said later, he liked Ivanhoe and Shakespeare better. But here’s the thing. At West Point in the late 1830’s Ulysses came to know many of the guys who would become the military leaders on both sides of the Civil War.

He also became friends with a rich guy from St. Louis who had a cute sister. Four years later he married Julia; they were loving and faithful partners all their lives.

Grant served in the Mexican American War of the early 1840’s. In his autobiography he says how immoral he thought that war was; curious to hear all these years later. He quit the military in 1854 because he wasn’t earning enough to support his family. Also, when the actual fighting was over where he had won commendations for his bravery and battle smarts – he was assigned to less fraught west coast situations. Bored and far from home, he drank heavily and was careless and disheveled. The army was about to fire him so he quit.

1854-1861 were his high failure years. His father-in-law gave him land plus one slave to establish a new farm. Grant was deeply in debt and if he had sold that enslaved man, he could have paid the debt. Instead, Grant manumitted the fellow. Grant detested slavery.

Through bad luck and illness Grant failed at farming. Then there were the sales, real estate, debt collecting business ventures in St. Louis which also failed. Finally, his dad sent him to Galena to work in the family leather goods store. Ulysses and Julia lived in a simple house with their four kids and no servants. Both of them were working hard.

Galena was a bustling city. Lead was mined in the surrounding area; a railroad was built from the mines to the docks along the Galena River in town. Steamboats loaded smelted lead at those docks, then navigated to the Mississippi River.

The Civil War started in April of 1861. Grant joined immediately and began training soldiers. The story of Grant’s rise through the ranks of military leadership is very cool and very long. (Read Wikipedia - Ulysses Grant and the Civil War). In many cases you can also simply ask any older guy about Grant’s war years and they can tell you. They might be wrong, but Civil War history seems to burble through an astonishing amount of older guys. (How would I know this?)

The cool thing is that Grant was quick-witted, level-headed, and brave. Men liked him. He could and often did drink a lot – but not while he was coming up to or in battles. He invented strategies that confounded Confederates. He didn’t stay safely back while battles raged, he was out on a horse observing, fine-tuning, encouraging, leading. When other generals complained to Lincoln about Grant and his independent ways and heavy drinking Lincoln is reported to have replied, “I can’t afford to lose him. He fights.” No one person wins a war but Grant was the lynchpin to the Union victory.

Like this: At one point he needed to get from where he was to the other side of a battle. He slung himself sideways off his horse so that only part of his leg was exposed to enemy gunfire, then galloped across the battlefield.

The war ended when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia April 1865. Lee was dressed in his formal uniform with his sword at his side. Grant’s formal uniform was miles away in a Union baggage cart. He just wore his blues.

After the war Grant won two terms as president. We hear these days about the fleeting Reconstruction years right after the Civil War before Jim Crow turned the south back into a racist morass. Reconstruction was the two terms of Grant’s presidency.

In May of 1884 Grant learned that his business partner had crashed their investments and Grant went from wealthy to broke in one morning. Two months later he learned the pain when he swallowed was incurable throat cancer (likely from his 15-20 cigars per day habit). Grant’s deepest fear and grief was leaving Julia broke. Mark Twain inspired Grant to write his memoir, helped edit the manuscript, gave him an advances along the way. Grant finished writing July 16, 1885, and a week later he died.

His memoir sold massively and still does. I’ve listened to lots of it and it’s never boring. He has an amazing ability to recall details and he has sardonic humor. “The Complete Personal Memoir of Ulysses S. Grant”

After the war but before the presidency, businessmen in Galena gave Ulysses and Julia an elegant house overlooking the town and river. The Grants lived in it several years before moving to the White House. It’s now a museum and nearly all the furnishings were the actual things used by the Grant family. I’d seen it once before, I wanted to go through it again and we did.

Grant was a bit taller than most men in his era: he was 5’8” (Len was proud to know he shares a height with Grant). Much of the furniture of the era looks a bit like kid furniture to us because it’s smaller and shorter since people were shorter. Grant's chair is regular size (to our eyes) and was his favorite; most of his reading, thinking and smoking, conversations with Julia or friends happened while he sat in this chair. It’s the only furniture they took with them to the White House.


Those train tracks from mines to the docks in town have been made into a bike/hike path. It’s a long path, much of it overlooking the Galena River.


There’s a tiny road south of town that runs along the train tracks that run along the Mississippi. The road starts as macadam, then it’s dirt and gravel, then just dirt, then two ruts, it ends with concrete blocks and sign from the DNR that says you are done now. Go back.

As we drove back I spied this black shape. We go out to explore. It’s the open entrance to an abandoned mine.


Ulysses Grant Quotes:

“I know only two tunes. One of them is 'Yankee Doodle' and the other isn't.”

“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.”

“It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies.”

“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon's but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”


Leonard's picture

I really like the last quote, about the battle between patriotism and intelligence … and ignorance and bigotry. He coulda been sitting here watching the news with us for the last couple of years.

I Love, love, love Galena... It is my Happy Place, I make it there at least once a month... Have taken or met many friends/people there... The bike trail is wonderful (tell Len)... I've ridden it multiple times... When the lotus are in bloom the sent hits you a mile before you see them... Makes me happy that you enjoyed one of my favorite places... PS my friend James has a family connection to Galena, his Graet great grandfather was a prominent busines man there (has a plaque)... And a great great uncle's house is a b&b he and his partner stayed in... I love Galena!
Mary Beth's picture

Where are there lotus??? Cool connections..

The lotus are in the river along the bike trail as you head south of town through a canopy of trees...
Mary Beth's picture

We've always turned to the right. Will go the the left next time..

WOW, very interesting!!!!

We’ve always talked about going to Galena - guess we should! The pictures are lovely.

Very nicely done, Mary Beth. I enjoyed this! My second wife and I honeymooned in Galena (I'm a big history buff and she was madly in love with me back then, albeit obviously foolishly). It was in July and the most humid days of my life!

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What the Dickens?

The photo is from Barnados, a childrens charity in London in the 19th century. 


Argh! I have a new phone because the old one stopped staying charged plus a few more foibles. My phone cost $400 five years ago so it makes sense that it stopped working reliably, right? If an appliance worked like this we would burn that manufacturer to the ground.

Swan Story


I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately and I have decided there is too much to read. Much of it is very good but there is JUST TOO MUCH!

So my goal going forward is to write shorter posts, more often, that might remind you of the glory, power, and goofiness of your life as well as mine.

So, let me say again what’s always very true. Thank you for reading what I write.


About My Memorial Day Story


Today my story ‘Memorial Day’ is posted at Substack. Read it here. 

Courage, Big & Little



I’m writing fiction this week. I started a story in December that, along the way, turned into a Memorial Day story. It will be my Substack story this Saturday.

This morning I looked for an old newspaper column to rerun and found this one about a time when one of our kids needed to have four teeth pulled.

Cholesterol Numbers & Squirrels


Years ago I was out to dinner with friends. We were all just entering our 40’s and thus were all beginning to get the fun medical tests about this and that and cholesterol. I said, to a friend next to me, that I’d started eating oatmeal everyday for breakfast and my cholesterol had dropped …..

The room went silent.

Everyone heard “cholesterol dropped” and stopped speaking. Everyone wanted to hear how much it had dropped – which was about 8 points. In our twenties the conversation stopper was gossip about sex. Now the secret sauce was HDL and LDL

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