“In his last hours at Mount McGregor, General Grant spent the greater part of his time in a Sinclair rocker and nearly all the pictures that were taken of him showed him seated in his favorite chair.”
— William Martin Beauchamp, in “Francis A. Sinclair,” Past and Present of Onondaga County (1908)
Folklore is easy; history is hard. And it pains me to find fault with the Rev. William M. Beauchamp (1830-1925), an ethnologist, historian, archaeologist and clergyman with few, if any, peers. But the photos of General Grant at the cottage where he spent his last days in 1885, show him not in a cane-seated rocker made by Francis A. Sinclair at his Union Chair Works in Mottville, N.Y., but a wicker easy chair.
However, General Grant did have a Sinclair rocker, and this might be where Beauchamp picked up the notion. F.A. Sinclair himself sent it to Grant 15 years before, when he was summering at his cottage on the Jersey shore, in the resort town of Long Branch. The story was reported in the Skaneateles Democrat of September 1, 1870:
“We saw last week, at the Union Chair works, a large rocking chair with splint seat and back made for President Grant. Mr. Sinclair, the proprietor, informs us today that the chair has reached Long Branch, and the President acknowledges its many good qualities… the President enjoys his cigar more than ever while occupying the ‘Old Puritan Chair.’”
It was to Long Branch that President Grant and his family journeyed each summer from 1869 to 1877, to escape the heat, humidity, mosquitoes and other pests of Washington, D.C.
In her memoirs, First Lady Julia Grant wrote, “What a boon our cottage at Long Branch was to the President! Tired and weary as he was with his monotonous official duties, he hastened with delight, as soon as Congress adjourned, to its health-giving breezes and its wide and restful piazzas.”
And Grant did a lot of sitting at Long Branch, reading his mail on the veranda, smoking cigars and silently watching the ocean, very possibly in a Francis A. Sinclair rocker.
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“Splint,” as in “splint seat and back,” refers to ash, oak, reed or hickory bark which have been hand split and pounded. It is a wider material than traditional cane and is most commonly woven into herringbone/twill or basket weave patterns. “Splint” can also refer to a wide variety of rattan cane.
The dining room chairs at the cottage where Grant died (on the slopes of Mount McGregor near Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) may have been F.A. Sinclair chairs; contemporary photos suggest they are, but they were not rockers.
After Grant’s death, Sinclair added a “General Grant Dining Room Chair” to his offerings, with caned seat and back.
Although Julia Dent Grant died in 1902, her memoirs were not published until 1975. Journalist Henry L. Stoddard wrote about visiting Grant at Long Branch in As I Knew Them (1927).
The year for the Skaneateles Democrat piece was noted incorrectly as 1875 in a Skaneateles Press “Twice Told Tales” of September 3, 1975, but noted correctly as 1870 in Helen W. Ionta’s F.A. Sinclair and His Common Sense Chair.