Our first day in Springfield, Illinois was spent exploring its magnificent Lincoln Presidential Museum, and it was a powerful and moving experience for both of us. But the next day was even better- because we walked where Abraham Lincoln walked. In fact, we walked through the home where Lincoln, his wife and his sons lived until 1861, when the duties of the presidency summoned them to Washington D.C. I had wanted to visit the home ever since reading about it in what many regard as the single most definitive biography of Lincoln, A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White. (‘A. Lincoln’ is how he always signed his name- and that is also what emblazons the name plate on the front door of their Springfield home.) Mr. White explains in his book that when Lincoln and his wife moved into the home in 1844, it was the largest home in which he had ever lived – and the smallest home in which she had ever lived! What a perfect way to demonstrate the widely different worlds from which they each emerged. As soon as I read that, I knew that I had to see this home for myself – and I am so grateful when the opportunity finally presented itself to do so.
To visit the home, you stop into the visitor’s center and get your time-stamped ticket … and ten minutes before your tour time, you are asked to gather about a half block away on some benches that are located right in the middle of the roadway. (No traffic is permitted in the vicinity.) There we were met by a park ranger (dressed in one of those iconic ranger outfits, complete with hat) who gave some introductory remarks about the neighborhood and how it had come to be restored to closely resemble how it would have looked at the time that Lincoln and his family lived there. We were told we were free to take photographs but that we were not to touch anything in the house, including the door frames and other woodwork. But otherwise, we were made to feel completely welcome, which was a lovely surprise. (At many such historic landmarks, one is often made to feel like a trespasser on holy ground after having a long list of strict regulations barked out by the guide. This felt completely different from that.)
Perhaps the most amazing moment in those introductory remarks was when the ranger pointed out the empty lot to our left, which was right across the street from Lincoln’s home. It was encircled by a white wooden fence but completely empty. Our guide told us that until the early 1970’s that lot had been occupied by a Piggly Wiggly supermarket! It turns out that while the actual Lincoln home had been looked after pretty well over the years, much of the area that surrounded it was allowed to develop and change. How wonderful that the decision was made at some point to restore the neighborhood, to give the Lincoln home the proper frame within which to be fully enjoyed and appreciated.
The ten minutes of introductory remarks were just the right length. It gave us what we needed to know to better appreciate the house we were about to visit- and was also (especially on as beautiful day as this) a lovely opportunity to sit, rest, and let the urgent tensions of the rest of the world fade into insignificance. (The Lincoln home and its surrounding neighborhood are pretty much right downtown, but it’s amazing how we felt like we were a hundred miles away from all of that.) And when it came time to follow the park ranger across the street and up to the house, it was easily one of the most exciting moments in my entire life- even though all we were doing was walking across a street and up to an old house. But this was a street on which Lincoln himself walked … and a house in which Lincoln himself lived.
We were told in the introductory remarks that not everything in the Lincoln home belonged to them. (This isn’t surprising since the home was rented out to various tenants as soon as Lincoln and his family moved to Washington.) But in fact, every single room in the home contains furniture owned and used by the Lincoln family- and it made it even more moving to be there. It wasn’t just that Abraham Lincoln had lived within these four walls, beneath these ceilings. He sat in these chairs – he ate this table – he looked in this mirror as he was shaving – his wife slept in this bed – his sons played with these marbles. This was where they lived!
One of my favorite items in the entire home was this small contraption that apparently was one of the Lincolns prize possessions: a tabletop stereoscope. This was a device with which one could insert a card that would have two very similar images, side by side, printed on it- and by looking through the dual lenses, one would see something roughly resembling a 3-dimensional image. Reportedly this device gave the Lincoln family no end of pleasure and delight, as one could easily imagine as we saw it sitting on the main table of the family’s sitting room. (And by the way, our guide told us that because Lincoln was so very tall – 6′ 4” tall, in fact – he spent a fair amount of time reclining on the floor since it was more comfortable than sitting in these chairs that were clearly designed for someone much shorter. Imagine that! Lincoln relaxing on this very floor, in the company of the people he loved the most.)
There’s even a brief moment when we are shown Mrs. Lincoln’s commode in the corner of her bedroom, which would have served as her toilet whenever it was too cold outside to utilize the outhouse in the backyard. And speaking of that, there is a three-seat outhouse in the backyard that may have been used by the Lincoln family; we simply do not know for sure. There’s no need to dwell on such matters except to the extent that it reminds us – perhaps like nothing else can – that these were flesh and blood human beings and not just towering figures of history.
There was one thing we were permitted to touch inside the house: the bannister for the stairway leading to the upstairs. They not only allowed this, but actually encouraged it- saying that this was not only a way to ascend the stairs safely, but that it was also the closest we could come to shaking hands with the sixteenth president of the United States. I don’t know that such a thought would have ever occurred to me if the park ranger hadn’t said it, but it did make the simple act of climbing those simple stairs feel like some sort of holy ritual.
I borrowed the heading “Looking for Lincoln” from my favorite of the many books about Lincoln that were published back in 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birth. Looking for Lincoln*, by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., is an amazing book that actually begins with Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and ends with the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial Memorial some sixty years later. It chronicles the way in which the country and its citizens, staggered by his tragic death, struggled to come to terms with who he was and what made him great.
One reads of Lincoln’s elaborate funeral procession, his burial and later re-burial, Mrs. Lincoln’s difficulties in living without her beloved husband (and eventually yet another son), the first books written about Lincoln, the first statues erected in his honor … and much more. The book is full of astonishing photographs, many of which had never been shared with the public before, including this touching photograph of the widowed Mrs. Lincoln after she visited a mystic who supposedly could conjure up the presence of a deceased loved one and capture their image photographically. Needless to say, the image of Lincoln hovering in the background of this photograph was artfully drawn in by this charlatan. One can only hope that it gave the bereaved Mrs. Lincoln some measure of comfort.
We read in this book about the efforts of Robert Lincoln, the only one of Lincoln’s four sons to live into adulthood, to safeguard the family’s home in Springfield, which became an almost holy destination for many Americans.
The house had fallen into some neglect (President Hayes, when he visited the home in 1879, said that it might as well be torn down if it was going to be so poorly taken care of), which prompted Robert Lincoln, the only surviving son of the president, to purchase the home . Shortly thereafter, he was approached by a man named Osborn Oldroyd, who at the time had amassed one of the most impressive private collections of Lincoln memorabilia, and wanted to rent the home in order to have a place to display his wares. Robert agreed and Oldroyd began living upstairs while converting the downstairs into a museum, with nearly every wall plastered from floor to ceiling with various documents, paintings and photographs- all related to the sixteenth president. Unfortunately, Oldroyd seems to have gone too far by gathering all manner of odd relics, to the point that “the house had come to resemble a junk shop.”
Even worse, as far as Robert Lincoln was concerned, was the fact that Oldroyd was charging admission to the house- and, perhaps most outrageous of all, “chipping lff small pieces of the house and selling them as souvenirs.” In disgust, Robert Lincoln gave the house to the state with only two conditions: that it be properly cared for and that the public would be permitted to visit it without paying admission. And thus it remains to this very day.
I want to mention one other photograph from the book Looking for Lincoln that gives me shivers whenever I look at it. No date is given for it, but it was taken some time after Lincoln’s assassination- and it shows a small group of anonymous tourists posing in front of Lincoln’s cabin. It is interesting how people even a few short years after his death were already feeling drawn to visit the places that he had called home … the places where he had walked and lived. It was one way to be close to him, to be in the presence of his greatness.
We know the feeling.
*Looking for Lincoln is published by Aldred A. Knopf. I recommend it highly.