Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Visit to Lincoln Home National Historic Site

On my way to Kansas for the National Underground Railroad Conference I took a side trip to Springfield, Illinois to visit some Lincoln sites that I had been interested in seeing for some time now. I arrived in Springfield late last evening after about a six hour drive from Kentucky and tried to plan out the following day to make the most of it. I got an early start this morning, arriving at the Visitor Center at about 8 am, which was a half-hour before they opened. That ended up being a good thing because it allowed me to spend some time looking around the recreated neighborhood that the National Park Service has fashioned before my tour of the house began.

Both Eighth and Jackson streets are blocked off to automobile traffic now and many of the buildings that housed Lincoln's neighbors have been restored to make the area look like it did in 1861 when Lincoln left Springfield to become president. The Lincoln's purchased the home in 1844 for $1500.00 from Rev. Charles Dresser, who had married Abraham and Mary two years earlier. Originally the house was a single level home, but as their family grew so did the house. The Lincolns added a downstairs bedroom in 1846 and a whole second story in 1855-56

As you can see from the historic picture above of the house draped in mourning for Lincoln's burial, the restoration of the house has been a marked success. Our ranger guide, Gabrielle gave great tour of the house interior. She pointed out all of the furnishings that were original to the Lincolns when they lived there and explained that many of these items have survived because the Lincoln's didn't need to move their belongings to Washington when he became president as the White House already was furnished. Plus, she explained, the Lincolns fully intended to return to Springfield when Abraham's presidency was over.

One of the neat items in the restored neighborhood was a reproduction campaign wagon that was made to look like a miniature log cabin. Lincoln's campaign advisers wanted to cash in on his humble beginnings and his connection to the "common man" and this, along with the "Railsplitter" identity were two of their campaign ploys.
There are also a number of interpretive signs throughout the restored neighborhood that provide a wealth of information on Lincoln's Springfield. Each restored house has a descriptive label and there are also signs on the ethic diversity of Springfield (Germans, Irish, African American, Portuguese, Italian, etc.) and about Underground Railroad activities by a couple of Lincoln's neighbors.

In the visitor center there were a number of artifacts related to Lincoln, including this "Wide Awake" lantern. On one side it is labeled "FREE MEN," and on the other "FREE SOIL." The Wide-Awakes were a campaign organization that was closely affiliated with the Republican Party in the 1860 election. The Wide Awakes had a type of military uniform that consisted of a cape-style robe and helmet-type hats. They often carried these lit lanterns and big signs that had a large open eye. They, of course, like all Republicans of the day, wanted to ensure that slavery did not spread to the Western Territories, thus the free soil and free men mottoes.

The visitor center also features a short film on Lincoln titled "Abraham Lincoln: A Journey to Greatness." This is one of the best National Park Service films that I have seen. It follows Lincoln from his arrival in Springfield in 1837 to his departure for the White House in 1861. I don't know who the actor was that played Lincoln, but he is a dead ringer (ears and all).

I thought one of the neatest original furnishings in the house was Lincoln's pigeon-hole writing desk. One can image the hours he probably spent at this desk pouring over law suits and writing letters to friends and family. Being as tall as he was I bet he bumped his knees on it all the time.

The Lincoln House does a great job of highlighting and displaying items like his writing desk, his top hat and a plethora of other common things to help let us see Lincoln the man instead of the President-politician, or the American legend that he has grown to become.

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