THIBODAUX, La. -- A promise Ulysses S. Grant made to his childhood sweetheart came to fruition in 1870 and Thibodaux got its first woman postmaster.
Grant, who was president from 1868-1876, appointed his childhood sweetheart, Mary King Fulford, as postmaster of Thibodaux on Dec. 16, 1870, two months after her husband died and left her and her children without a source of income.
Although Fulford relinquished the job five months later saying it wasn't appropriate for a lady to accept such an offer, the fact that Grant remembered her and tried to help her 30 years after they parted ways is typical of the kind of man he was, said Diane Meives, one of the founders of the U.S. Grant Network.
The Grant Network was formed in 1995 and is dedicated to showing Grant as a kind, personable man rather than a ruthless military man many perceive him to be.
Coming to aid a childhood friend was not out of the ordinary for Grant, Meives, a Sheboygan Falls, Wis., resident, said.
"That's very typical of him," she said. "He was a very kind man. Most people view him as a harsh man. He was a very gentle man. Honest ... a family man above all else."
Reaching out his hand to help his childhood sweetheart was an act of kindness, but there was no question that Grant was in love with his wife, Julia, and remained so for their 37 years of marriage, Meives said.
Fulford, who moved to Thibodaux in 1847 and died in Thibodaux in 1903, grew up with Grant in Georgetown, Ohio, a small community along the Ohio River in southwestern Ohio.
Meives said there is some question whether she was his girlfriend or just a close friend.
He was better known for his skills with horses than his social graces.
"He was very bashful," she said.
Biographers of Grant say Mary King was his childhood sweetheart.
After he left Georgetown to attend West Point in 1839, he sent her poems and his best drawings, according to "Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character" by Hamlin Garland, published in 1920 by MacMillan and Co.
A poem Grant wrote for her before he left for West Point is on file with Grant's papers at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. It is an acrostic, with the first letter of each line spelling her name. In it he promises to often think of her.
Returning home after his first semester at West Point, "one of the girls he hastened to see was Miss Mary King," Garland wrote. "To her he had significantly sent one of his best drawings from West Point. ... These things give color to the tradition that Miss King was the boyhood sweetheart who had made West Point seem a long way off."
But, Garland, who interviewed many of Grants' childhood friends for his biography, wrote that the romance was short-lived.
"Of her little can be learned save that she accepted another wooer," he wrote. "It is not remembered that Ulysses grew wan with grief."
It is not clear whether they corresponded later in life, although there apparently was some contact in 1870, when she was appointed post master.
Mary King married John Davidson Fulford, a Virginia native who lived in Higginsport, Ohio. They moved to Memphis before settling in Thibodaux in 1847.
The 1850 census lists John Fulford's occupation as a clerk in the general store or hotel owned by his brother-in-law, B.F. Holden.
Holden had been a barge captain who brought goods from Ohio and beyond to Louisiana before settling in Thibodaux. He owned a grocery, a hotel and Thibodaux's first stagecoach company.
The Fulfords prospered in Thibodaux. John and his brother James opened a carriage shop on the west side of Jackson Street in what is now the 800 block in 1853.
The Fulfords were active in the Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux, which had been founded the year they moved to Thibodaux. John Fulford became the church's second ruling elder in 1859.
Mary King Fulford helped run the Sunday school program. When there were no regular Presbyterian ministers around, she kept the Sunday school open, a feat the Rev. Charles M. Atkinson, a Presbyterian evangelist assigned to the area in the 1880s, said helped keep the fledgling church alive during and after the Civil War.
The Fulfords bought a house at what is now 622 Jackson St., two blocks above the carriage shop, in 1859. He took on added duties as a notary public and their family grew to nine children.
But then the Civil War came and took with it the fortunes of many in this area.
By 1865, the local economy was in a shambles. Fulford tried to regain some of his prosperity, opening a grocery with his brother-in-law, Edward King, in 1865. It failed a year later.
He sold the carriage shop in 1867 and became the agent for a farm implement company, selling Hall Maysville plows in 1868 from an office he rented from Holden on the corner of Main and Market streets.
He took ill in 1870, at the age of 52, and after a long illness died on Oct. 13, 1870.
Two months later, Grant, who promised to think of her in a poem 31 years before, appointed her to the postmaster's job, replacing Gustave Boudreaux.
Her obituary, published Dec. 23, 1903, in the Lafourche Comet, called the appointment an act of affection by Grant but said she turned the job down on the advice of friends.
According to postal records, she was officially postmaster of Thibodaux from Dec. 16, 1870 to April 11, 1871.
She stayed in Thibodaux for the rest of her life, relying on her children for support.
In 1890, after the death of her daughter Lizzie Guardia, she sold the family's homestead on Jackson Street to her son-in-law, John Guardia, a teacher at the Guion Academy in Thibodaux, for $500 with the stipulation that he provide "a good, peaceable and comfortable home consisting of board, washing and lodging" for the rest of her life, according to the act of sale filed in the Lafourche Parish courthouse.
She remained active in the Presbyterian Church until her death on Dec. 17, 1903.
The Lafourche Comet lamented her death calling her "a lady kind and gentle; of dignified bearing yet humble in manner; a lady devoted to her family, faithful to her friends and true and reverential to her God."
Her grandchildren donated a stained glass window in her honor in the new First Presbyterian Church which was built in 1907 on the corner of Canal Boulevard and East 11th Street. But the window was destroyed by a hurricane in August 1926.
The church honored her in 1954 by naming its new Sunday school building on Green Street after her.
The Fulfords are buried in St. John's Cemetery, which lies halfway between where their home and business was located.
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