In 2016, I received a full academic scholarship from Skidmore College to finish my undergraduate degree. Having just completed my associates at a state community college in Alabama, this was practically a dream come true. So in September of that year, I packed my clothes, a couple of guitars and my two cats into my 2006 Ford Taurus and drove the 1,100 miles from Birmingham, AL, to Wilton, NY. I did all of this to start a new life in a town I had never visited (or heard of) in a room in a house I had only seen in a few photos. Looking back, it was quite a gamble, but sometimes what seems like your only option can turn out to be your best one. I had chosen a small house in Wilton because living on campus at Skidmore was outside my budget and living in downtown Saratoga Springs… well, need I say more?
I learned quickly, however, that Wilton is quite a unique place with much more going on under the surface than first meets the eye. For instance, only in this small rural town could I enjoy the endless trickle of a creek in my backyard or be warned about the occasional black bear meandering through the neighborhood for some garbage snacks, and yet be just a ten-minute drive from the mecca of goods and restaurants at the Wilton Mall and equally close to the mecca of culture that is Saratoga Springs. And did I mention that Wilton also has Grant’s Cottage, the peaceful state historic site on the slope of Mount McGregor where Civil War General and one-time President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant spent the last weeks of his life. For a formerly tiny, agrarian community, Wilton has a lot of fascinating historical connections. Of course, that comes as less of a surprise when you discover that the town is celebrating its bicentennial this year and has a whole list of family-friendly as well as historical events planned.
The celebration kicked off back in April, the month when Wilton’s township was formed, though the actual community is much older. The Historic Weekend Celebration included the premier of a documentary about the town’s history and recent change called Wilton 200, a historic sites tour of the town, as well as an Earth Day Run and a ribbon cutting for the brand new Bicentennial Trail at Camp Saratoga. It’s fitting that Wilton’s opening bicentennial celebration was on this year’s Earth Day. The town has always maintained a strong love and respect for the land, even as it’s transformed from a tiny farming community to a small city divided between ample park space and large residential and commercial sections
But not that long ago it was a very different place. “When I moved up here, it was probably about as rural as you can get,” says Arthur J. Johnson, Supervisor of Wilton and a resident since 1973. “I think the population was somewheres around 2,000 at the time. Now it’s almost 17,000.” By the late 1980s its population began to boom, and city planners had to adapt to Wilton’s rapid new growth. They came up with a comprehensive plan that included developing a large commercial and retail area around Exit 15 and expanding an area at Exit 16 that had been, and remains, largely industrial, with shipping facilities and warehouses. In between these two exits, to prevent commercial or industrial encroachment, the town planned plenty of park space and neighborhoods. So making that convenience happen that I mentioned earlier—being able to live in a quiet, rural place surrounded by nature and still be just a short drive to civilization—was not done by accident.
It hasn’t always been an easy dance for the Spa City neighbor, which for most of its history has been a tight-knit community of farmers. And yet, Wilton has done a magnificent job of managing the economic boon without sacrificing its country charm or its proximity to the wildlife and classic Upstate natural beauty that we all love. In fact, the town has expanded its commitments to its parks, including a new Bicentennial Trail at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, and it plans to open a brand-new pavilion at Gavin Splash Park later this summer. Kurt Haas, the maintenance foreman at Gavin Park, tells me it’s all in preparation for the town’s Bicentennial Parkfest, which kicks off on July 7. Haas, who lived in Wilton for 15 years and now resides in Gansevoort, has been doing a lot of cleaning and repair work at the park to get it in tiptop shape. “One of the things I like about living in the Wilton-Gansevoort area is that we’re kind of in between Saratoga and Lake George, and there’s always something going on and things to do,” says Haas. Indeed, Parkfest alone will include live music from Beatlemania Now (a Beatles cover band), amusement park rides, a petting zoo/exotic animal display, stand-up comedy, a classic car show, magic show and even pig racing. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t be in the country without some good old fashioned pig racing (imagine the surprise of out-of-towners when they discover what going to the races means in Wilton).
The town has also teamed up with McGregor Links (Wilton’s own country club built in 1921 by local Senator Edgar T. Brackett) to offer a one day special golfing event on June 23. Later in the summer, Grant’s Cottage will also present a Civil War Weekend. This inaugural event will include guided tours, period musical performances and, coolest of all, more than 100 Civil War re-enactors portraying multiple battles and scenarios from our nation’s most destructive and divisive war. And I thought this sort of stuff only went on in the Deep South. But that brings me to the final thing (at least in this article) that I love about Wilton—its history.
On July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant arrived at the Adirondack mountain cottage that would later bear his name. In New York City at the time, the former President and savior of the Union was dying of throat cancer and completely broke after a number of financially disastrous decisions. Not wanting to leave his family destitute, Grant was in a race against time to finish his memoir before it finished him, thus ensuring that his family would get the unprecedented 75 percent royalty offered to Grant by his good friend, the great humorist and author Mark Twain. Grant was having difficulty breathing while working in the suffocating heat of a New York summer, so, at the request of another friend, Grant traveled up to Mount McGregor, hoping that the fresh Adirondack air would improve his health long enough to complete the memoir that had grown to nearly 500 pages. Whatever was in the cool mountain air back then did the trick, because Grant finished the final proofreading just days before he passed away. Even on his deathbed, the great general was determined to win his last battle.
This story about Grant’s Cottage is what most people think about when they think of Wilton’s history, but this only scratches the surface. This tiny town is, in fact, also the namesake of the Battle of Wilton (there’s a blue historical marker near the present-day intersection of Parkhurst and Gailor roads), a series of skirmishes fought between England and France for control of the Albany region during King Philip’s War. Though not as historically significant as the nearby Battle of Saratoga, the Battle of Wilton occurred in 1689, making it one of the oldest recorded battles in New York state (nearly a century before the original 13 colonies would declare their independence). Wilton is also home to 16 designated cemeteries, the oldest of which has headstones from the early 1800s. It’s also the final resting place of several Revolutionary War veterans, including Edward Bevins, a drummer boy who fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775.
But I would like to return to Grant, spending his last weeks feebly yet furiously scribbling away in that cottage on the slopes of Mount McGregor. It’s easy to see why the story has remained so popular: It’s a tale about last-minute redemption and inspiration. Grant, like me, must’ve found a peace in Wilton that, even after all this time and development, still hasn’t changed.