Taste and Tourism Vie In Lincoln Theme Park
Illinois Town Hopes to Cash In on Honest Abe
By Kari Lydersen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A03
LINCOLN, Ill. -- Pastor S.M. Davis has a vision, and there are references to it all over the office of the Park Meadows Baptist Church in this central Illinois town where he has ministered since 1975 -- framed pictures on the walls, an interactive PowerPoint presentation on the laptop on the desk, videotapes stacked in the shelves.
Davis's dream is to see a 305-foot-tall, full-color statue of Abraham Lincoln towering over this town of 15,400 people. He envisions hundreds of thousands of visitors a year flocking here to ride an elevator to the top of Lincoln's stovepipe hat and enjoy water slides and dinner theater in an adjacent Lincoln theme park.
After moving here from South Carolina, the born-again pastor with a fire-and-brimstone preaching style immediately became intrigued with what he views as Lincoln's impeccable, "Christ-like" character -- his humility, honesty, wisdom, even the fact that he was a teetotaler. Davis, 52, often refers to Lincoln in sermons and in the tapes that he sells, such as "Avoiding the Wrong Self Image -- for Young Ladies."
The digital presentation on his computer shows how his statue will compare with other Lincoln images around the country. The seated statue at the Lincoln Memorial, at 19 feet tall, is shorter than this Lincoln's boot. Lincoln's face on Mount Rushmore, at 60 feet tall, wouldn't reach this Lincoln's thigh. Although the 305-foot height isn't set in stone, it was chosen because that is the height of the Statue of Liberty, from the pedestal foundation to the tip of the torch.
While there are many towns and cities in the United States named after Lincoln, this hamlet about 35 miles north of Springfield has a special claim to fame. It is the only town named for Lincoln before he became president. He spent a lot of time here as a lawyer and real estate surveyor while living in his Springfield home, now a historic attraction, for 17 years before assuming the presidency. He and several other land speculators drew straws to see who the town would be named for, and Lincoln won. He christened his namesake in 1853 by spilling the juice of a watermelon, a local crop, on the ground, uttering a phrase now repeated fondly by Davis and other Lincoln residents: "I never knew anything named Lincoln that amounted to much."
The statue is based on a drawing by late artist Lloyd Ostendorf, showing Lincoln spilling a tin cup of watermelon juice on the ground. There are two barrels of juice behind him, mainly to provide structural support because Lincoln, the town, is in prime tornado country. The stream of juice coming from the cup will be shortened so that it dissipates in midair, because the original plan with the stream reaching the ground "made it look like Lincoln was urinating if you went around to the back of it," according to Davis.
Davis says one of the barrels would house an art gallery of "Mr. Lincoln's character qualities," a collection of paintings depicting traits with which Lincoln is associated, including determination, wisdom and judgment.
The statue is expected to cost $40 million, and the theme park another $80 million. Davis and other supporters claim it will easily support itself in revenue once it is up and running. They are forgoing any government funding and instead seeking a major corporate sponsor.
"If a corporation gives money to build this, they could be associated with the good name of Abraham Lincoln for perpetuity," Davis said.
The statue plan has lots of fans in Lincoln, including Mayor Elizabeth Davis (no relation to the pastor) and local business and tavern owner Larry Steffens. They both sit on the board of the Lincoln Statue Corporation, founded in 2001.
"It will be kind of like Silver Dollar City [in] Branson, Missouri," said Steffens, 60, whose great-great-grandfather was an early settler of the area. "We'll have artisans and a working 1850s-style farm. It will be like you've walked into the 1850s."
In Springfield, location of the Lincoln Home, Lincoln's tomb and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is set to open in spring 2005, reception to the statue idea is mixed.
"Some people think it's a neat idea; others don't want this big guy looking over their shoulder all the time," said Deborah Ranslow, an employee in the bookstore of the Lincoln Home Visitor Center who lives in Williamsville, not far from Lincoln.
Kim Bauer, curator for the presidential library, said he doesn't necessarily oppose the plan but he's concerned about its implementation. "I find it difficult to be critical of anyone who wants to bring tourism to the area, but my major concern is that they do it in a manner tasteful and respectful of the Lincoln legacy."
Thomas Schwartz, director of research and acquisitions for the presidential library, agrees. "I think it's a sincere effort to attract visitors, but because of the scale and the way it's being promoted I think it's going to be more of an embarrassment than an asset," he said.
Ron Keller, curator of the Lincoln College Museum in Lincoln, initially liked the statue idea but became more skeptical as plans for the theme park evolved. "I appreciate the idea of bringing tourism here, and Pastor Davis is really passionate about honoring Lincoln, but I have reservations about the height and about what some people will do with the theme park," said Keller, a history and government instructor at the college. "I don't want this to end up dishonoring our community and the man for which it was named, and I think we run the risk of doing that."
Though the town of tidy lawns and stately houses on leafy streets is hardly impoverished, Mayor Davis notes that it has fallen on tough economic times as businesses have pulled out of the area. Most recently, the massive Lincoln Developmental Center, a residential home for the severely disabled that employed about 700 people, was closed in 2002 amid reports of injuries and deaths resulting from abuse and neglect.
Though Davis stresses his main motivation is not financial, he perceives extra revenue for the town as a side benefit.
"I've seen the population of this town drop since I've been here," he said. "Kids shouldn't have to leave after high school because there are no jobs here. People realize we're sitting on a gold mine with this history of Abraham Lincoln, so how do we mine it?"
Steffens said that although most of Lincoln likes the statue idea, they have been busy deflecting the mockery of detractors and allaying some residents' concerns.
"We're trying to increase understanding of what we want to do, but it's not always easy," he said. "One woman came up to me and said, 'Won't those barrels of watermelon juice attract a lot of flies?' "
© 2004 The Washington Post Company