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On the Lincoln Trail
Where in the Land of Lincoln will your family find him?
By Brian “Fox” Ellis
On a recent long weekend, my family went looking for Abraham Lincoln. My daughter had just finished a report on our 16th president and we had watched the wonderful PBS American Experience documentary about Mary and Abraham, “A House Divided”. Much like looking for Waldo who is hiding on every page, it seems that everywhere you go in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was there before you.
We started right here in Peoria where a young Abraham Lincoln often visited. He wandered in Springdale Cemetery to gather his thoughts before trying cases at the courthouse. When you walk through this beautiful cemetery among the ancient oaks it is easy to imagine Lincoln sitting on a gravestone meditating on his opening remarks for an upcoming trial.
Before the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln gave a lecture on Peoria’s courthouse square. Here he rehearsed some of the ideas that became the cornerstone of his famous “A House Divided” speech. A few years ago, Peoria school children collected pennies to help pay for this statue on the corner of Jefferson and Main. This statue is actually one of the better photo opportunities to get your picture standing next to a life-size Lincoln.
Our family was present when they dedicated the statue. There was a Civil War era band and a Lincoln impersonator. This along with the PBS documentary helped to fire our curiosity.
We set off towards Springfield.
As most experienced family travelers know, we brought lots of snacks and drinks. We also brought several collections of Lincoln stories. Read aloud, the books helped pass the long drives with humor and history. The stories also helped to build excitement for each of the next stops.
We took a detour into Lincoln, Illinois, a town Lincoln laid out as a young surveyor. He christened the town with a watermelon. The town re-enacts this event with a watermelon feast each year. Though we did not think of it until later, it might have been fun to bring our own watermelon to eat on the town square. On the southwest side of town is a replica of the old Postville Courthouse. The original courthouse was bought by Henry Ford and moved to Detroit to be a part of Greenfield Village. In this accurate reproduction there is period furniture, informative signs about Lincoln’s life as a circuit riding lawyer, and a reconstructed courtroom, where it is easy to imagine Lincoln arguing a case. Honestly, the museum itself is just ok, but the ladies who work there were engaging. Through stories and conversations they helped to bring Lincoln the lawyer to life.
Driving south along I-55, we headed towards New Salem. New Salem is a village near Petersburg, where Lincoln lived for several years shortly after he moved to Illinois. Here he ran a general store. He was the village postmaster. He helped to build a flatboat that he floated down the Sangamon River to the Illinois, down the Illinois River to the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans. It was on this trip that he had his first encounter with slavery, witnessing a slave auction. Years later when people asked about his position on slavery he would recall this auction and say, “When I hear folks speak up for slavery, I always think, it aught to be tried on them for awhile and see if that don’t change their opinion.”
New Salem is a hike through time, a place to walk in the footsteps of Lincoln.
New Salem is also a reconstructed site, the original village was abandoned 100 years ago and fell into disrepair. Here they have rebuilt more than 20 buildings including a one-room school house, where you can occasionally find a school marm to give your children a taste of pioneer education.
The general store Lincoln ran has been rebuilt and is stocked with products similar to what he may have sold. It was here that Lincoln walked six miles to repay a woman he had short changed, furthering his reputation as Honest Abe.
In the summer, New Salem hosts an outdoor musical theater series with an emphasis on local history. You can also camp at the state park or canoe the Sangamon River. Again, if it were just a collection of buildings it would not hold the interest of most children, but children and adults alike are entertained and inspired by the knowledgeable interpreters whose job it is to re-enact the history of the village. Some are more entertaining than others, but my daughters have learned early that asking questions and engaging the guides makes the experience more fun for everyone.
From New Salem we wandered into Springfield.
Our first stop was the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office across from the old state capitol. The guide here was particularly entertaining and informative. He told tales of Lincoln’s days as a lawyer and cases he tried. One of my daughters’ favorite tales was of a woman Lincoln literally ran into while crossing the street. She looked up and said, “You are the ugliest man I have ever seen!” Lincoln apologized, saying, “I am sorry ma’am but there is nothing I can do about my looks.” “Yes there is,” she retorted, “You could stay home, so I wouldn’t have to look at you!” Lincoln loved to tell tales like this about himself to entertain the clients who visited his law office.
Just south of downtown is the Lincoln home. This home is filled with artifacts from the life of Lincoln. Originally, one-story tall, Mary wanted a second floor. Lincoln talked a carpenter into giving an exaggerated quote for the construction, trying to dissuade his wife. While he was away for a few weeks as a circuit riding lawyer, Mary had the second floor built. When he returned, Lincoln was surprised. His wife proudly explained, ‘Look, I had it built for half the price and saved us a fair sum of money!’
Our final stop was Lincoln’s final resting place. Lincoln’s tomb is an amazing work of art that celebrates the life of this great man. We were fortunate to be there when a guided tour came through and we followed along, hearing tales of treachery, attempts to steal Lincoln’s body and the security measures taken to protect him.
While writing this article, I asked my wife and daughters about their favorite memories. One said she liked going to visit real things and read old plaques in front of old houses. The other said she liked the pool at the hotel best. Kids on vacation always love the hotel with a pool!
The Lincoln Library is scheduled to open in June 2004 and the new Museum will open in February 2005, giving visitors two more options.
Our family did enjoy a special treat at the end that had nothing to do with Lincoln; we went to the St. Louis Zoo. Maybe in an upcoming issue we can give you a full report of our ongoing tour of Midwestern Zoos!
For more information about “Looking for Lincoln,” please visit their web site. (With the state budget crunch, hours may have changed, please call ahead.)
914 Fifth Street, Lincoln, (217) 732-8930
Hours: Wednesday - Sunday 12:00 - 5:00pm
Donations suggested.
Two miles south of Petersburg, (217) 632-4000
Hours: Wednesday - Sunday March - October 9:00 - 5:00pm,
November - February 8:00 - 4:00pm
Donation suggested.
6th and Adams, (217) 785-7289
HOURS: Tuesday - Saturday March - October 9am - 5pm,
November - February 9am - 4pm;
8th and Jackson, (217) 492-4241, ext. 221
HOURS: 8:30 - 5 pm daily, extended spring, summer and fall hours;
Oak Ridge Cemetery, (217) 782-2717
HOURS: Daily March - October 9am - 5pm,
November - February 9am - 4pm, Tuesday (June - August 7pm - 8pm);

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