Tennessee seems like one of the most unlikely places for an Abraham Lincoln museum. But, believe me its there in Harrogate, Tennessee on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University and under the shadow of the Cumberland Gap. The story of how East Tennessee received the Lincoln Library and Museum is one that is little known except to serious Lincoln students. Apparently, in 1863 Lincoln and General Oliver O. Howard (later head of the Freedmen's Bureau) had a meeting where Lincoln expressed a desire to do something educationally for the large Union sympathizing population of East Tennessee. Howard eventually took Lincoln's wish to heart as he later helped found Lincoln Memorial University in 1897. Due to its name and historic association, LMU started receiving donations of Lincoln and Civil War memorabilia shortly after its founding. A special "Lincoln" room housed the collections for years until the current building was constructed in 1977.
I have passed through the Cumberland Gap countless times in my travels between the Tri-Cities, Tennessee area, where I used to live, and Kentucky and southern Indiana, to visit friends and family, but until last week I had never taken the time to stop and see what it has to offer. On a quick trip back from a visit down to Johnson City and Bristol, Tennessee to see some old friends, Michele and I dropped in for a look around.
I was pleased to meet Steven M. Wilson, who is the Assistant Director and Curator, at the front desk to take our admission ($5.00 each). I mentioned that I worked for the Kentucky Historical Society, so he made it a point to introduce us to Michelle Ganz, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian, who gave us a special tour of their excellent collections. Treats like this are rare for the regular public as museum curators and archivists are usually covered up with so much processing work that it is difficult to take time to show off their collections. But that certainly wasn't the case the day we visited. We were allowed to see first-hand some of their most rare treasures, as they had just had a Lincoln Symposium the weekend before and they had not returned a number of these gems to storage.
Some of the most impressive things we got to see were their image collections. One of their volunteers was processing a whole stack of Harper's Weekly images while we were there and Ms. Ganz also showed us a rare scrapbook collection that had been donated. Now, these weren't your everyday old scrapbooks. These had countless one-of-a-kind Lincoln and Civil War images and were in bound books of many volumes. Getting to see all of these invaluable collections was a real treat.
After our special "behind the scenes" tour we looked on our own through the museum gallery. There was what appeared to be a temporary exhibit on United States Colored Troops that was very informative, as well as a wealth of exhibits and artifacts on all things Lincoln. One of the neatest things they had on display was the cane that Lincoln has taken to Ford's Theatre the night of his assassination.
If you ever find yourself going through the tunnel at Cumberland Gap, travel on just a couple more miles and stop in to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. You'll wish you had stopped sooner. I know I did.