Object of the Month

A Presidential Visit to Martha’s Vineyard: Ulysses S. Grant in August, 1874

President Grant and party at Bishop Haven’s cottage Photograph, stereograph

President Grant and party at Bishop Haven’s cottage

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This stereograph, photographed and published in 1874 by R. G. Shute of Edgartown, Mass., depicts President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia; Orville E. Babcock (Grant’s private secretary) and his wife Annie; Miss Campbell (Annie Babcock’s sister), and Miss Barnes on the porch of Bishop Gilbert Haven’s cottage in Wesleyan Grove, Martha’s Vineyard. Grant was the first sitting president to visit the Vineyard.

Hail to the Chief

Today, Martha’s Vineyard is no stranger to high profile visitors including Presidents Clinton and Obama who arrive on the island with their families and entourages and are whisked away to a private retreat, emerging occasionally to bike, eat ice cream, shop, or golf. But when Ulysses S. Grant arrived on the island in late August 1874, the island was not yet a summer tourist mecca and Grant stayed in a cottage in the densely-packed cluster of cottages comprising the Wesleyan Grove Methodist camp meeting. Although the camp meeting was in full swing, there can be little doubt that religious endeavors were overshadowed by the excitement of a Presidential visit, at least for a few days.

Arriving via Wood’s Hole aboard the steamer River Queen, previously one of Grant’s dispatch boats during the Civil War, the President was met by a “gaily decorated” trolley car drawn by six black horses which, pursued by thousands of curiosity seekers, delivered the President to Bishop Gilbert Haven’s cottage on Clinton Avenue. The rest of the President’s day was a whirlwind—an appearance at the Methodist tabernacle where “the space under the canopy and for rods around was one dense mass of eager humanity,” dinner at the Central House, viewing of a spectacular illumination and fireworks display, a reception for Mrs. Grant, and finally a moonlight serenade which elicited the following response from Grant: “I thank you for your cheerful greeting. No doubt you are tired and sleepy, as I am, so I will not detain you. Good Night.”

The following morning, the presidential party left the island for Nantucket and Hyannis, returning in the late evening. The next day, Grant visited Naushon Island, the home of John Murray Forbes of Milton, Massachusetts. Forbes was a prominent Republican and some have speculated that the reason for the visit was Grant’s desire to gauge his support for a third term. Forbes and Grant had once been close, but had clashed over political issues, including the appointment of William Simmons as collector of the port of Boston (perhaps not coincidentally, Simmons was instrumental in the preparations for Grant’s island visit, making sure everything was just so and that Grant’s favorite cigars were close at hand at all times). It is unknown what Forbes and Grant talked about during their private chat, but by 6:30, Grant was back on the Vineyard for a dinner hosted by J. W. Harper of the New York publishing firm at the Sea View Hotel. A reception followed at which more than 1000 people are said to have shaken hands with the president. The President took his leave of the reception after an hour or so, although the dancing and other festivities lasted until midnight.

The final day of Grant’s visit coincided with “Big Sunday,” as the last day of Camp Meeting was known, and Grant and his wife attended morning services at Wesleyan Grove before departing aboard the Monohansett for New Bedford. Mrs. Grant expressed her delight both the island and the Wesleyan Grove camp meeting. The President, taciturn as ever, bowed slightly, waved to the crowds, and returned to the mainland.

A Short History of Wesleyan Grove

Camp meetings were a form of popular outdoor religious revivals employed by various Protestant denominations. Originating in frontier areas where people would gather from far-flung locales, pitch their tents around a clearing, and enjoy a period of sustained preaching, hymn singing, and religious fellowship, camp meetings grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, especially among Methodists. The Martha’s Vineyard camp meeting was established in 1835, growing from nine tents in the first year to 200 by 1855. Hebron Vincent, who chronicled the Wesleyan Grove meetings from the beginning, described the Vineyard meeting as “destined to rise in importance … may become a rallying point for multitudes. A convenient landing, level ground, a delightful grove, and an abundant supply of the sweetest water, are among the inducements which this place holds out to the lovers of camp meetings.” Given that religious services under the aegis of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association are held to this day, Rev. Vincent was right on target.

The distinctive “gingerbread” cottages that Wesleyan Grove is known for began to appear between 1859 and 1864 and are thought to have been the invention of local craftsmen. Today about 300 remain, including Bishop Haven’s. A contemporary article in the New York Times described the cottages as

… very pretty, with Gothic arches and balconies; they consist of only two small rooms and are open at each end constantly … giving one a glimpse of all that transpires within … Canary birds sing outside the doors. Tree trunks are converted into moss-draped baskets of flowers. Ivy drapes the white tents with a beauty beyond architecture.

There is little doubt that the clusters of tiny cottages and tents contributed to the notion of Wesleyan Grove as a magical and spiritual place. When the adjacent town of Oak Bluffs was developed in the late 1860s, the cottages and arrangement of streets took their inspiration directly from Wesleyan Grove, although interpreted by professional architects and landscape designers.

What is a Stereograph?

Stereographs were among the earliest attempts at 3-D photography. They consist of two nearly identical photographic images (usually paper-based, but occasionally glass), mounted side by side so that, when seen through a stereograph viewer (or by squinting), the viewer sees the image in three dimensions rather than as flat photographic images. Stereo daguerreotypes were first introduced to the public at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, and by 1870, photographers all over the United States were creating mounted paper views for sale to an avid public. In 1859, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., invented a hand-held stereograph viewer and glowingly praised stereographs in the Atlantic Monthly.

The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out. … there is such a frightful amount of detail, that we have the same sense of infinite complexity which Nature gives us … the stereoscopic figure spares us nothing …

Holmes concluded his article with recommendations for viewers, as well as tips for collecting stereographs. Although stereographs were most popular from 1870 to about 1920, they are still produced today. Another familiar iteration of the technology is the ViewMaster, introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair and enjoyed by children throughout the 20th century.

For further reading

Gorham, Barlow Weed. Camp Meeting Manual: A Practical Book for the Camp Ground in Two Parts. Boston: H.V. Degen, 1854 

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly, vol. 3 (June 1859), p. 738-748

In addition to hundreds of stereographs, the MHS collection includes two replicas of Holmes’s stereograph viewer.

Jasnov, Brittany, ed. "The Clintons Were Here, So Were the Obamas: the Secret History of Presidential Vacations on Martha’s Vineyard,” A History of Presidential Vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, Boston Magazine.

Information about the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association can be found at their website, mvcma.org

Norton, Henry Franklin. Martha’s Vineyard: Historical, Legendary, Scenic. Hartford: Pyne Printery, 1923.

Railton, Arthur R. “When Grant Took the Island,” Dukes County Intelligencer, vol. 29, no. 1 (Aug. 1987), p. 1-25

Vincent, Hebron. A History of the Wesleyan Grove, Martha's Vineyard, Camp Meeting: From the First Meeting Held There in 1835 to That of 1858, Inclusive; Interspersed with Touching Incidents and General Remarks. Boston: Rand & Avery, 1858.

Weiss, Ellen. City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha’s Vineyard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.