Does America take Lincoln’s birthday for granted? Not in Lincoln, Illinois, the only town in the country named for Abe Lincoln before he became famous—while he was still a young attorney on horseback serving Illinois’ 8th judicial circuit.
I can speak from experience, having lived in Lincoln for 26 years before relocating to Washington in 2002. But we Lincolnites never take even the smallest factoid of Lincoln lore for granted. For example, everyone who has lived in Lincoln, Illinois, knows that:
- Lincoln christened his namesake town with watermelon juice, long before he became famous—at the Lincoln depot where a statue depicting the momentous event still stands.
- On his judicial circuit rides, Lincoln would plead his cases at the Postville Court House. A replica of the court house is a popular tourism attraction on Fifth Street near the edge of town. When the State of Illinois had to close a number of state-owned historic sites several years ago due to lack of funds, long-time community activist and volunteer Shirley Bartelmay stepped forward to organize a group to staff the site and keep it open for visitors.
- The signature Abe Lincoln Heritage Event still takes place every fall—the National Railsplitting Festival, when teams from all over the country gather at the Logan County Fairgrounds to test their mettle at splitting logs in record time.
- The only real property that Lincoln ever owned other than his home in Springfield, was the lot at 523 Pulaski Street, next door to my husband’s office on the downtown Lincoln square. Today the lot is the site of Sherwin Williams, commemorated only by a plaque on the building.
- Just about every town in Illinois has its Lincoln impersonator, and so did we. At any public event, you could see Charlie Ott walking around in his frock coat and top hat, shaking hands—his bearded face always solemn. He showed us very little of Lincoln’s humorous side. Most fascinating was the strong rivalry between Ott and his chief competition, Harry Hahn, from neighboring Mt. Pulaski—and there were many arguments over whose Lincoln was the “real one.”
- The high school sports teams, of course, are the Railsplitters—or Railers. Famous Railers include Brian Cook, formerly a forward with the Lakers, now the Orlando Magic, and Tony Semple, who was offensive guard for the Detroit Lions. The school’s fight song concludes with:
“ . . . if dear old Abe were here, I know what he would do,
He’d say ‘Lincoln, I’m proud of you—oo—oo!’”
Come to think of it, I guess I’m pretty proud, too.
-- Valecia Crisafulli
Valecia Crisafulli is the director of the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.