Several sites in Illinois continue to attract Lincoln enthusiastsBy W. WINSTON SKINNER
Daniel Stowell, who grew up in Newnan and has become a leading Abraham Lincoln scholar, will be speaking in Newnan on Nov. 5.
Stowell’s return to his hometown is part of the celebration planned by the Newnan-Coweta Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. Jan Bowyer, the former teacher who heads the committee, grew up in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln lived and where Stowell now stands watch over the 16th president’s legacy.
The high point for most of those sites was the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009. That year, “there was an ‘up’ in tourism,” said Anne E. Suttles, assistant director of the Lincoln Heritage Museum in Lincoln, Ill.
While there have been some visitors to the Lincoln Heritage Museum who identified themselves as Civil War buffs, Suttles said “Civil War visitors tend to go to the battlefields” rather than museums about figures from that era.
John Popolis, museum technician at the Lincoln Home in Springfield, said visitors there come for several reasons. Some are deeply interested in Lincoln, while others are trying to visit as many presidential homes as possible.
One area of interest that has brought people to see the only home Lincoln owned “has been the Civil War,” Popolis said. “One way or another, we’ve always had some connection with the Civil War.”
The Lincoln Home typically has about 350,000 visitors annually. The number dropped to 280,000 after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It’s come back up since then,” Popolis said, reaching 450,000 during the Lincoln bicentennial.
In addition to the museum in Lincoln, which was named for the future president while he was still a circuit-riding lawyer, there is a walking tour of sites associated with him there.
Springfield is a magnet for Lincoln admirers. In addition to the only home he ever owned, the town features the Old State Capitol and the nearby law offices Lincoln shared with William Herndon, whose distant relatives were early settlers of Haralson.
Springfield is also home to the Lincoln family tomb and to a depot where he gave a famous speech as he departed his hometown for Washington in 1861.
One of Bowyer’s ancestors was in the crowd who heard Lincoln say, “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. 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, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed.”
There are other places throughout central Illinois associated with Lincoln. The best known is doubtless New Salem, the reconstructed village where Lincoln ran a store as a young adult.
Nearby Petersburg was also familiar to him. Ann Rutledge, said to be the future president’s first real sweetheart, is buried there.
Lincoln was “a lawyer who traveled around,” Suttles noted. Not surprisingly, there are several sites associated with his peripatetic law practice.
Two courthouses where he argued cases – brick revival landmarks in Mt. Pulaski and Metamora – still stand. The original Postville Courthouse, a simple frame building, was carted to Michigan by Henry Ford for his Greenfield Village project decades ago, but the State of Illinois constructed a replica in 1953.
Old Main at Knox College, the only remaining original site of the famous Lincoln Douglas Debates, is at Galesburg. Dr. William Fithian’s home in Danville is a museum whose furnishings include the bed in which Lincoln slept while a guest there.
The Statehouse in Vandalia was known to Lincoln when he was a legislator. Lincoln was among those casting his vote to move the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield in 1839.
Even in towns where no physical ties to the lanky politician survive, there are often stories and legends about him. In the tiny burg of Atlanta, history notes Lincoln giving a speech at a huge July 4 celebration in 1859 and practicing for a debate with Stephen Douglas.
“Lincoln was influenced by the people in Illinois. He was influenced by the people who surrounded him,” Suttles reflected. “We have to tell that story.”