Who was the man behind the legendary beard?
He was an attentive father and a devoted husband, an impassioned lawyer and a grandiloquent speaker, a generous neighbor and a dog-loyal friend. He was not, however, the 16th president of the United States. At least not yet.
Springfield, Ill., covers the clean-shaven period of Abraham Lincoln’s life, from 1837, when he arrived in the newly minted state capital, to 1861, when he boarded the train bound for Washington and the White House. The city 200 miles south of Chicago claims to contain more Lincoln sites than any other destination in the country. Makes sense: After years of romping around the Midwest like a wild buck, the Kentucky native finally found his path and purpose in Springfield.
As the president-elect proclaimed in his farewell address at the train station on Monroe and 10th streets: “Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”
(For Lincoln scholars, this version of his speech is etched into the ground at the Old State Capitol Plaza. You can find other citations at the nearby Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.)
According to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, of the world’s notable figures, Lincoln has received more ink than anyone else except Jesus. On Nov. 9, the president will step into the Hollywood starlight in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” based on a Doris Kearns Goodwin biography. The film will focus on the final months of his presidency, time spent in our own back yard. But he flourished professionally and personally during the Springfield years. Without this interlude, the river of history would have flowed in a much different direction.
“If we can’t be known as the home of the Simpsons,” said Dave Bourland, curator of the Executive Mansion, referring to the animated TV family that lived in another Springfield (rumored to be the one in Oregon), “we can be known as the home of Lincoln.”
Most of the Lincoln sites fan out along an easy-to-navigate grid in Springfield’s modest downtown. The Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, for example, sit across the square from the Old State Capitol, which is opposite the bank that safeguards a ledger of Lincoln’s financial transactions. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is four blocks from the National Park Service’s Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Cut left on Monroe and you’ll hit the Lincoln Depot, where the president-elect bade Springfield a final adieu, or hop over to Seventh Street and you’ll pass the First Presbyterian Church, where the Lincolns rented a red-cushioned pew for 10 years.
If you start pining for Lincoln on a stretch of street without an official attraction, simply stop at one of 48 informational placards marking the Lincoln Story Trail. Around the corner from Abraham Lincoln’s National Museum of Surveying, for instance, I read up on the Lincolns’ marriage (based on affection, not a loveless arrangement) and Mary Todd’s wedding ring (purchased at Chatterton’s jewelry shop on Fifth Street). Between a visit to his house and the depot, I learned about his fancy taste in transportation: In 1852, he purchased a new carriage for $260, and a year before running for the executive office, he installed silk curtains on glass hooks. Honestly, Abe, isn’t that a bit extravagant?
To tour the Lincoln sites — roughly six major, seven minor — I could have followed any number of approaches: chronological, geographical, random. Yet I arranged my excursions operationally. Though the capital is the largest city in central Illinois, it behaves like a small town. Many businesses still punch the 1950s clock, closing in time for the 5 o’clock news and a dry martini. A few attractions are open daily, such as the museum and the Lincoln home, but others limit their hours, especially off-season. My advice: Start early and don’t stop till security kicks you out.
I began my Lincoln journey in 1843, inside the law offices of the self-taught attorney and his partner, William Herndon. I trotted behind the avuncular guide, stepping on wooden floors that once absorbed Lincoln’s footfalls. We paused at the bookkeeper’s desk where Lincoln wrote his inaugural address, then headed upstairs to the plain-vanilla rooms where the attorneys prepared their cases.
The guide re-created the 19th-century environment, describing the dirt roads and roaming pigs and chickens. He said that the lawyers had to contend with insufferable heat, frigid cold and pestering flies that entered through the screenless windows. Instead of a bubbler, they drank from a pail of water; for a bathroom, they visited the little boys’ outhouse in the alley.
For Lincoln, a leggy guy at 6-foot-4 (not including hat), the commute to the Old State Capitol probably involved a quick leap and bound across the plaza. To summarize the importance of the Greek Revival-style building: This is where Lincoln served as state legislator, delivered his “house divided” speech in the Senate race against Stephen Douglas and lay in state in May 1865, drawing 75,000 mourners. Duly noted. But on the lighter side, did you know that Lincoln used his stovepipe hat as a filing cabinet, stashing scraps of paper inside, then returning the topper to his head?
More than halfway into my trip, I awoke at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel and Conference Center with a slight concern: I might have contracted a minor case of Lincoln fatigue. In addition to the law offices, the bank ledger, the old Capitol, the museum and the church pew, I had also toured the Executive Mansion, the governor’s abode that contains a Lincoln Room and pieces of Mary Todd’s china. Scratch these off the list, too: Pose for a photo with the Lincoln statue on a park bench in Union Square Park and rub his bronze nose for good luck at his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
During a lull, I squeezed in a stroll at the Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center, a 100-acre park whose plantings echo the Midwestern landscape once familiar to the president. Through quote-inscribed benches, I could hear his voice rustling in the prairie grasses. “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this,” he intoned — or rather, I read.
On my final day, my initial urge was to relax in the outdoor patio at Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery, not race over to the Lincoln home. The restaurant, I rationalized, would still keep me on the Lincoln beat: The kids of the original homeowners played with the Lincoln boys. But then I heard the voice of my fourth-grade U.S. history teacher asking me whether I truly believed that Obed and Cornelia Lewis would ever have served Lincoln a plate of Smokin’ Hot Legs. Point taken.
At the NPS visitor center, I received a timed ticket for the house tour, which caps the number of participants at 15. Before we entered the green-shuttered residence, the ranger told us to secure our bags, stick together and not touch the walls. Our natural oils could damage the delicate structure. He also told me to toss my gum.
Inside, we walked through one formal parlor and then another. “We like to say Lincoln’s road to the White House started in this room,” the ranger said. In the back corner, the politician had met with members of the Republican National Convention and agreed to represent the party in the presidential election.
Before taking us upstairs to the bedrooms, the ranger eased up on the rules. He encouraged us to take hold of the banister, allowing us to touch the same railing that Lincoln had gripped for 17 years.
One by one, we ascended the staircase. I was last in line and took the steps slowly, running my palm over the smooth wood. The group was nearly through Lincoln’s bedroom when I finally caught up.