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Our adventure really began this past winter when Iowa Public Television aired a four part documentary on the lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. But I’ll admit that I have been a Lincoln admirer since grade school and so this pilgrimage has been a long time in the making.
Like all savvy travelers, I started on-line to see what Springfield had to offer in the way of Lincoln history and sights. Not only is Springfield the capital of Illinois but it is the location of the only home Lincoln ever owned. The travel guide indicates that Springfield is one of the most visitor friendly cities in America, and the city that Abraham Lincoln loved. That was enough for me. With a click of the mouse I ordered the requisite tourist information and was off and running.
The Memorial Day weekend seemed "altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." So with deposits sent, the car serviced and our child in his booster seat our family set out for the Land of Lincoln.
Lincoln himself is a paradox to me. Log-splitter and statesman; military strategist and loving father; simple farmer and great orator. He received only eight months of formal education in his life and yet became one of the most influential men in our nation’s history. Springfield was the city he called home before he moved to the White House. His law practice was there and he began socializing with politicians there.
The House Lincoln Built
Abraham and Mary Lincoln bought the Greek revival style cottage which sits on the corner of Eighth and Jackson in 1844. They purchased the home from the Reverend Charles Dresser who had married the Lincoln’s two years before. As the Lincoln family grew so did the house. Eventually a second floor would be added. Three of the four Lincoln sons were born in the house and one, Eddie, died there.
The years in Springfield were happy ones for the Lincolns. As Abe built his law practice, Mary set to keeping the house and raising the children. Mary Todd Lincoln was from a wealthy Kentucky family and had only lived in Springfield a short time when she met the hard working lawyer. Despite their many differences the two were married on November 4, 1842.
Mary had been raised in affluence with servants and was well educated. Her education did not include housekeeping and cooking. She taught herself to cook and did virtually all the cooking for the household. Eventually she did hire servants that helped her tend the house and care for the children.
Abraham’s business, both legal and political kept him away from the house for months at a time and so when he was home he could not bear to discipline the boys. Much is said about the antics of Willie and Tad Lincoln. With Robert away at school Tad and Willie kept things lively around the house. Our tour guide told us the boys would often knock off the tall (stovepipe) hats of the men who passed by the house while they hid behind the fence.
Another story of the boys pranks happened when Mary was entertaining the fashionable ladies in the formal parlor of their home. As the story goes, the boys crept into the parlor unnoticed and quietly untied the ribbons from the backs of the ladies dresses. Then they very quietly retied the ribbons to the chairs. When the ladies rose to leave their chairs did too.
William Herndon, who was one of Lincoln’s law partners once quipped; "Lincoln worshiped his children and what they worshiped; he loved what they loved and hated what they hated.
The formal parlor in the house is a room with a great history. When the Lincolns first bought the home there was a small parlor and bedroom in that spot. The Lincoln boys were born in that room. Once the home was enlarged the bedroom was moved to the second floor and the parlor was then enlarged. It is said that Mary Lincoln would hold large parties in that one room of the house. On one occasion she entertained 500 guests in the parlor. However, not all at the same time. On the invitation she wrote not only an arrival time, but also a departure time, so that one group would leave as the next would arrive. It was considered rude to overstay your invitation.
It was also in the formal parlor in 1860 that delegates from the Republican party notified Abraham Lincoln of his nomination as candidate for President of the United States.
There are about 40 original pieces from the Lincolns in the house. One is Mr. Lincoln’s writing desk and another his shaving mirror. The stove on which Mary Lincoln learned to cook and prepared the meals for the family remains. The bannister to the second floor is original and as I ran my hand along it, I was struck by the fact that the great man himself had also run his hand along this bannister. Even the outdoor "biffy" stands intact, and in case you’re wondering, it is a three seater.
The Springfield Historical Society has done a wonderful job of acquiring and restoring the houses along 8th Street. Many of the houses are open for touring and all have plaques in front that tell a little about the families that lived there during the time the Lincolns did, and also how they may have been tied to the Lincolns. I couldn’t help but marvel as I walked where he had walked and saw things he might have seen.
The Lincolns left Springfield for Washington on February 11, 1861. To the crowd gathered at the train station Lincoln said: "Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return....To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything."
Eventually Robert Lincoln became sole owner of the house at the corner of Eighth and Jackson, and in 1887 donated the house to the people of Illinois, with the stipulation that there would never be a charge to see the house. The State of Illinois donated the home to the United States in 1972 and it is now maintained by the National Park Service.
Other Lincoln Sites
• The Lincoln-Herndon Law Office is located near the Old State Capitol. Both are preserved and have regular tours.
• There is the Train Depot from which the Lincolns departed for Washington D.C. At his departure Lincoln was quoted: "No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting." The depot is fully restored and includes a waiting room for ladies and "one for luggage and tobacco-spitting men."
• The First Presbyterian Church is home to the "Lincoln pew" Like many other families at the time the Lincolns maintained a pew at their place of worship. Mary Lincoln was a member of the church, but her husband never became a member, although he did pay for the pew and attended occasionally.
• The Lincoln Memorial Garden has five miles of walking trails and is located on the shore of beautiful Lake Springfield. It was designed by Jens Jenson and built by the Springfield Garden Club.
• The Lincoln tomb is a short drive from the city center at Oak Ridge Cemetery. The permanent resting place of our 16th president sits high on a hill overlooking much of Springfield. The tomb was constructed by the National Lincoln Monument Association at a cost of $171, 000. It was designed by Larkin Mead and dedicated on October 15th, 1874. At the entrance of the tomb is a bronze bust of Lincoln sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who also sculpted Mt. Rushmore. While most of the sculpture is weathered bronze, the nose shines brightly as it is custom for everyone who enters to touch the nose of the president.
Surrounding the president’s burial marker are the flags from the states of his ancestors, and of the states where he lived. In the center is the United States flag an