Springfield: politics through Abe’s eyes

Lincoln Tomb Monument

The face of Lincoln shows up everywhere in Illinois – brass busts on office desks to bigger-than-life memorials in city parks – but there’s just one place to grasp the many layers of the 16th president’s life before and during a complex time of American history.

Springfield – Lincoln’s home from 1837-61, and his final resting place – uses history to explain “Honest Abe’s” life and its lessons, some of which are still painfully pertinent today. Example: Lincoln’s 1858 observation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

What referred to slavery then remains relevant, for other reasons, 154 years later. It is not unusual for tour guides and exhibits in Springfield use Lincoln settings, stories, situations and artifacts to bridge past with present in even-handed ways.

“We found that a large number of youth who come here say that having a rival means having an enemy,” says Justin Blandford, Old State Capitol historic site manager. “Lincoln would have been surprised by this.

“It’s never comfortable when your rival moves ahead of you, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. That’s just life.”

The point is made when discussing the series of heated debates about slavery that pitted incumbent Stephen Douglas against challenger Lincoln during a U.S. Senate race. The two were decades-old rivals, Justin says, but “rivals typically want the same thing, and in this case unity was important to both men. They were rivals who believed in the same nation.”

Lincoln practiced law in Springfield, married and raised a family there, represented the area in Congress and didn’t move away until elected U.S. president.

In 2005, the opening of the block-long Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum elevated the city’s already-significant attractions. The museum blends artifacts with special effects and is among the most visited presidential sites.

Holograms work like magic to explain Lincoln’s temperament and challenges, dark times and triumphs.

It seems like you’re eavesdropping on White House staff as they whisper about the Civil War, then the First Lady’s deep and prolonged depression after the death of a second son.   Elsewhere in the museum, special effects and plain talk amplify presidential advisors’ reactions to the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Why wouldn’t slavery vs. freedom be a slam-dunk easy issue? That’s explained, too, in terms and context that feel modern-day real.

“We immerse people in Lincoln’s life and times instead of making them just spectators,” explains Tim Farley, former executive director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“What was he like as a dad? What would a modern-day ad campaign for his presidential run look and sound like?” These aspects of Lincoln’s life are among those addressed in Springfield.

The city’s second annual “History Comes Alive” program begins June 8 with the re-creation of a Civil War medical encampment on the Old State Capitol grounds. It ends Sept. 2 with an Illinois Symphony Orchestra concert at the same location.

In between these dates, living history performers roam the area daily, interacting with visitors, going about business and playing games from Lincoln’s era. The efforts involve children to adults.

The National Park Service oversees tours of Lincoln’s 17-year home in Springfield and encourages visitors to roam the historic, four-block neighborhood surrounding it. Mike McPeek, a tour guide, notes how the Lincoln house compares to the occupant’s childhood: “The size of the kitchen was about the same as the one-room, dirt-floor log cabin where he was born.”

“This is where he developed his views on freedom,” adds Laura Gundrum of the National Park Service, regarding Springfield.

Also in the city are the downtown Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices and the 117-foot-tall Lincoln Tomb Monument, which anchors a 320-acre cemetery.

You can leave feeling entertained by all the little offbeat facts. Examples: Lincoln used to carry documents inside his hat. He didn’t grow a beard until after elected president.

Another option is to leave feeling humbled and challenged. “This reminds us of what Democracy is about,” asserts Justin, of the Old State Capitol. “We can be rivals without being enemies.”

Travelers who love road trips know Springfield as a fun stop along historic Route 66, whose 2,448 miles stretch from Chicago to Los Angeles. One of the endearing highlights is Cozy Dog Drive In, 2935 S. Sixth St., whose founders take credit for introducing and popularizing corn dogs on a stick in the 1940s (Californians, Texans and Minnesotans debate this).

A Cozy Dog costs all of $1.95, and the regulars call it a “cozie.” The setting is kitschy and casual; hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., except Sundays and most holidays. For more: www.cozydogdrivein.com, 217-525-1992; tours can be arranged.

Also nearby is Shea’s Gas Station Museum, 2075 Peoria Rd., and its 50-year collection of memorabilia. For more: 217-522-0475.

For more about Springfield tourism: www.visit-springfieldillinois.com, 800-545-7300.

How many Lincoln sculptures and statues exist in Illinois? Let me know if you have a tally. I can only say that you’ll see plenty while exploring the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, which encompasses 42 counties in central Illinois.

The initiative traces the life of Lincoln, from Alton’s acknowledgement of the final Lincoln Douglas Debate to Vandalia’s nod to Lincoln’s election as a state legislator.

For more: www.lookingforlincoln.com, 217-782-6817. Although this online site needs updating, information about small-town relevance is sound.