Encounters with the man who would be president


July 24, 1994|By Judy Hevrdejs | Judy Hevrdejs,Chicago Tribune

The young man leading a group of visitors through the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Ill., is explaining why, despite all the beds and books and black top hats on display, only 50 or so of the hundreds of items filling the two-story house were actually used by Abraham Lincoln and his family.

"The Lincolns had a type of yard sale in which they sold a lot of pieces before they left for Washington," says National Park Service ranger Andre Jordan. And his tour group, familiar no doubt with that popular American house-cleaning method, greets this bit of Lincoln information with a laugh.

The anecdote about the yard sale held before the Lincolns moved to the White House in 1861 is not a monumental piece of information. It does not carry the importance of the Gettysburg Address, for example, nor does it pique historians' interest as much as Lincoln's legal work in Illinois.

But such information -- dispensed with enthusiasm by National Park Service employees at the Lincoln Home, guides at the Old State Capitol and costumed interpreters at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site -- makes a visit with Mr. Lincoln come to life.

Track Lincoln through the Springfield area, and you'll find structures built of logs -- and stones and bricks and stained glass. Yet it is the folks along that route who give those structures a voice, paint a picture of the era and provide visitors ,, with an intimate portrait of the man who was America's 16th president.

Consider, say, the image of Lincoln presented at the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, where the young lawyer arrived at dawn most days, stretched his 6-foot-4 frame out on a small bed tucked in a corner there, then spent a goodly amount of time perusing the local newspaper.

Or eavesdrop on the conversation between a volunteer and visitor at the Hill McNamar Store in New Salem, a historical re-creation of a 19th-century village -- " 'Course, that Ann Rutledge, she sure caused quite a stir," opines the volunteer -- and imagine how blue-eyed Ann captured the attention of several young men, including Abraham Lincoln.

Stories such as these add a particularly human dimension to the image of Abraham Lincoln, and only in Springfield are there so many opportunities for gathering those details from the plaques, the brochures and, especially, the guides.

And that translates into big numbers: The Lincoln Home Site welcomed some 480,000 visitors last year and expects to top 500,000 this year, thanks in large part to spillover from the World Cup. According to a spokesman at Lincoln's New Salem Historic Site, where numbers dropped last year because of a misperception that it was affected by floods, the log cabin village expects to have 700,000 visitors in 1994.

While the Lincoln Heritage Trail actually begins at his birthplace near Hodgenville, Ky., and winds through Indiana on to Illinois, there is a wealth of information in a half-dozen historic sites in the Springfield area -- many of which are within walking distance of each other.

* Lincoln Home National Historic Site, 8th and Jackson streets; (217) 492-4150. Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (through August); 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily the rest of the year. Admission is free, but tickets are required and handed out on a first-come, first-served basis at the Lincoln Home Visitor Center for the 20-minute tour.

A black silk top hat hangs on a rack just inside the front door of a two-story structure set in a four-block area restored to resemble the 19th-century neighborhood in which Abraham Lincoln lived.

That simple item of clothing so closely identified with Lincoln appropriately holds a prominent place in the only home he ever owned. It was here, at the corner of 8th and Jackson streets, where Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, lived from 1844 until 1861. It is here their four boys -- Robert Todd, Edward Baker, William Wallace and Thomas (Tad) -- were raised.

The most popular room in the house? That would have to be Lincoln's bedroom, says Larry Blake, chief of operations at the Lincoln Home, "because people can easily picture Mr. Lincoln in the room. Because we have a few original artifacts, like the shaving mirror, and that helps people to relate more to the man."

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site is run by the National Park Service. After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, the home was rented out. In 1887, the home was donated by Robert Todd Lincoln to the State of Illinois. In 1972, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site became a National Park Service site. According to Mr. Blake, the most recent renovations on the home, which re-opened to the public in 1988 after a year of work, included structural work to accommodate the increasing number of visitors, some environmental controls, and, thanks to new information that had become available, restoration of the interiors and exteriors to more closely resemble their 1860s' look.

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