During the late 1970s and early 1980s, my parents and I would often drive to Lancaster on Friday evenings. While we were there, we’d make a wish list of hand-stenciled Hitchcock furniture at Buchanan’s, have dinner at Shaw’s or Mauger’s, and visit Hammond’s Gallery to admire the work of wildlife artist John Ruthven.
Ruthven, who lives in Georgetown, Ohio, is one accomplished artist. He designed the cardinal depicted on the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ best-selling license plate. He painted images for three wildlife stamps. Ohio Governor James Rhodes and Colonial Williamsburg commissioned him to create several works. He presented paintings of the American Bald Eagle to Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who gave him the National Medal of Arts in 2004.
But it wasn’t until I worked at the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library that I learned that Ruthven is also a historic preservationist. In 1977, he and his late wife, Judy, purchased an unassuming brick building in Georgetown, rescuing it from demolition. The building was the boyhood home of President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Ruthvens restored and furnished the house at 219 East Grant Avenue, dedicating one room to Grant memorabilia and adding a rear wing for exhibit space. It was named a National Historic Landmark and opened to visitors in 1982. In 2002, the Ruthvens donated the home to the State of Ohio, which placed it in the care of the Ohio Historical Society.
The next year, many of my buddies in various Society departments began working on a $1.4 million restoration project to restore the Grant Boyhood Home. The project was made possible by funding through State of Ohio capital appropriations, federal grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, and two grants from the Ohio Historical Decorative Arts Association. The Ohio Department of Transportation funded streetscape improvements.
Now that the project has recently concluded, I took a restful, scenic drive down State Route 62 to Georgetown last Sunday to see it.
Let’s begin with some background. Our eighteenth president was born April 27, 1822 at Point Pleasant in Clermont County, Ohio to Jesse and Hanna Simpson Grant. In the fall of 1823, the family moved to Georgetown, where Jesse built a tannery. Across the street, the Grants built the first part of their home, which had one room on the first floor and another on the second. A kitchen was added in 1825. Around 1828, the Grants built a two-story home in front of, and attached to, the 1823 house.
As Jesse expanded his influence in Georgetown — selling insurance, working as a general contractor, owning a livery stable, and even serving as the city’s mayor — his son reveled in his favorite pastime: spending time with horses. Ulysses hauled and sawed wood, broke up land, furrowed, ploughed corn and potatoes, and brought in the harvested crops. A great traveler who wanted to see things, the young Grant visited Cincinnati, Wheeling, Maysville and Louisville several times by himself.
The future president also earned a reputation for being a great problem-solver. When several men couldn’t figure out how to move a large rock from nearby White Oak Creek, the teenager devised a successful plan, relying on a horse and some strong ropes to slowly inch the non-budging boulder out of the creek and into its new position as a porch stoop for a neighboring house.
Grant left for West Point in 1839. While he was in school there, his parents and siblings moved to Bethel, a town 12 miles away in Clermont County, and Grant’s boyhood home was sold. In 1868, new owners added a conservatory, elongated windows, and a Victorian-style porch, which was replaced by a new porch in 1905. By the 1960s, the house was divided up into apartments.
Here’s how the Ohio Historical Society restored the home to its 1839 appearance. First, the team conducted archaeological excavations at the home to locate areas where outbuildings once stood. Pre-1880s Sanborn maps (detailed descriptions of dwellings used by fire insurance agents), metal detectors and magnetic analysis of soil helped them plot their strategy. From June to September 2003, an archaeological team spent four 10-hour days a week at the site digging four trenches on the property. They found shards of ceramics, pieces of brick and nails, clay marbles, and gun flint, possibly from the Grant period. They didn’t find any outbuildings, but they did discover a sidewalk and a cistern that no one knew existed.
The team removed the paint from the home’s exterior, restored the brickwork, replaced a metal roof with wood shakes, took down the 1905 porch, and returned the windows to their original appearance and smaller size. New graded brick sidewalks were added to provide wheelchair access through the rear wing of the house.
Inside, the team chipped layers of paint or wood and looked at samples under microscopes to determine the home’s original decorative color scheme. An Historic Finish Analysis prepared by Welsh Color & Conservation of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania revealed that doors in the house had originally been grain-painted in two tones to look like mahogany and figured maple, most likely done by an itinerant artist of the day.
Besides showing that each room was painted in a different trim color, the finish analysis revealed that there had been a layer of glue on the original plaster, leading the team to decide that the walls had been papered. Since they didn’t find shreds of original wallpaper, they researched newspapers and other primary sources of the 1820s and 1830s to discover what was available in the region at that time and what the Grants would have been able to afford. This informed their choices for reproduction wallpapers to use.
To supplement the furnishings that the Ruthvens had collected for the home, team members chose period pieces from Ohio Historical Society collections. Furniture reflecting the aesthetic tastes of a rising middle-class family of the 1830’s is on display in the front rooms, while those predating the 1830s furnish less-formal family areas toward the rear of the house. Original Grant furnishings in the home include a horsehair sofa in the parlor, two kitchen chairs, the cradle that Ulysses and his siblings slept in…
…and a rocking chair that Jesse made for Hanna.
Window treatments reflect authentic designs of the time. In the boys’ room at the rear of the house, the team installed roller blinds fastened with strings attached to the window frames. This decision was influenced by English author Frances Trollope’s description of the blinds she saw in her hotel room when she visited Cincinnati in 1828.
A decorative floor cloth was reproduced for the front hall.
During the tour, an animatronic figure of a teenaged Ulysses describes his boyhood in Georgetown. The figure was created with the assistance of a forensic artist by using age-regression images of Grant. What it says is taken from Grant’s memoirs.
Objects associated with Grant’s military career are also on display in an exhibit at the rear of the home. For example, you can see the “Day & Night Signal Glass” binoculars that he used on Civil War battlefields.
A circa-1829 brick schoolhouse stands a few blocks away from the Grant home, at 508 South Water Street. Here, the Grants paid $1.50 to $2.00 in cash or crops for their son to attend a 13-week term in the subscription school each winter, from 1829 to 1836. Inside, you can see a long wooden bench that was used when Grant was a student there, as well as a reproduction of a signed pencil drawing that he made of West Point in 1840. (Click here to see it.) A resource library and items pertaining to the history of Georgetown can also be found at the schoolhouse.
At Point Pleasant, about 20 minutes away from Georgetown, you can tour the cabin in which Grant was born. That’s a field trip for another day.
To read more about this trio of historic sites, see “Ohio Historical Society Album: The Land of Grant,” in the April-June 2006 issue of TIMELINE.
To see examples of John Ruthven’s work, check out John A. Ruthven: In the Audubon Tradition, a 1994 book by George Laycock that is illustrated with color plates of Ruthven’s paintings and reproductions of drawings and photographs. The book complemented an exhibition of his art at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History that same year.
In 1965, Ruthven collaborated with William Zimmerman on Top Flight Speed Index to Waterfowl of North America, an identification guide showing each species in flight and on the water, with the outstanding characteristics of each painted in minute detail. Ruthven’s watercolor painting of a Meadow Jumping Mouse appears as the frontispiece of Jack L. Gottschang’s A Guide to the Mammals of Ohio (The Ohio State University Press and The Ohio Biological Survey, 1981).
In 1996, Ruthven collaborated with W.H. (Chip) Gross and the Ohio Division of Wildlife on The Ohio Wildlife Viewing Guide, a book listing 80 of the best sites to see the birds, insects and animals of Ohio. The book includes six Ruthven paintings that represent wildlife in six ecological regions of Ohio. Each painting shows six examples of wildlife found in that region.
An Instrument of Your Peace, Eyes of Tenderness and Wings of Encouragement — all collections of poems by Helen Steiner Rice — are illustrated with paintings by Ruthven.