The Great American Road Trip: Part Seven — Land of Lincoln

Nine or ten days in the car stopping off at American sites of great natural beauty and historical wonder.  With three kids.

The results were surprising to us all.

Click here to view Part Six.

We awoke in Springfield.

Ah, Springfield.

If you look in the distance, you can see the power plant with its tall stacks reaching toward the sky.  On the edge of town lies Lake Springfield.  A nearby community is called Shelbyville.  Is that a Kwik-E-Mart I see?

Wait.  It’s not that Springfield, is it?

Apparently not.  Although Matt Groening has parents named Homer and Marge and sisters who go by Lisa and Margaret, Groening insists that The Simpsons‘ Springfield is a fictional city.

But, Springfield, Illinois has all of the attributes that I just described.  Coincidence?

This Springfield is the capital of The Prairie State.  We have stopped here because it was the home town of a great American.

Day Eight:  Springfield, IL to Dayton, OH

Cheers to Staybridge Suites for their continued excellence — no matter the location.  They are our hospitality chain of choice.

This was Dad’s big day.  He had waited for this his entire life — visiting the home of his hero, Abraham Lincoln.  The Major had visited Lincoln sites throughout the country.  But he had never been here.

All family members cooperated this morning in packing up and leaving early.  They knew Papa was excited, and did everything to ensure that he had a great day.  The Major will love them forever for this one.

Let’s tell the story in pictures.

The old statehouse. Lincoln served as a legislator and announced his candidacy for president here.

Lincoln’s tomb is located in Oak Ridge Cemetary on the outskirts of Springfield.  Subway Dude and The Major had an interesting discussion over the grandeur of this monument.  SD felt that it was ostentacious and did not befit Lincoln, who was a common man, not a king.  TM believed it was appropriate in light of the extreme blow Lincoln’s death dealt to the nation, and taking into account the century’s fascination with Egyptian culture.  All of this raises the question: who is a tomb really for, the deceased or those left behind?

In 1876, a bizarre plot was hatched by Chicago counterfeiters to steal Lincoln’s body from the more simple tomb where it lay at the time.  The plan was to demand $200,000 and the release of a compatriot from jail in exchange for the body of our country’s martyred president.  The plot was bungled from the start: the grave robbers had trouble picking a simple lock; they could not lift Lincoln’s 500-pound coffin; and they had unwittingly confided in a paid informant of the Secret Service.  They did not succeed.

The Lincoln Presidential Museum was described as “Smithsonian Quality.”  Before seeing it, The Major had his doubts.  They were unfounded.  It was one of the best museum experiences ever.  The Major and Subway Dude explored this site while the rest of the team shopped in downtown Springfield.

Four indelible images from the Lincoln Museum:

  1. The re-enactment of a slave auction in New Orleans.  After traveling down the Mississippi by flatboat, Lincoln was deeply affected by the sight of one of these markets.  Lincoln wrote that this incident had a hand in forming his impressions of slavery.  The Major found the exhibit moving.  SD thought it was overdone.
  2. Mary Lincoln in mourning.  This ambitious woman suffered the loss of her husband and three of her four sons during her lifetime.  Both SD and TM thought that the wax representation of Mary sitting in the dark with rain falling on a window behind her was a powerful image.
  3. Lincoln’s funeral.  The exhibit featured a darkened room with the coffin resting on it catafalque.  You heard the sound of weeping in the background.  It was moving.
  4. A blind man being escorted through the museum by a friend.  The blind man’s intense interest was evident.  The friend provided vivid descriptions of each room in the exhibit for him.  There were two life masks of Lincoln’s face on display: one from the beginning of his presidency; and one done shortly before his death.  The blind man stopped to feel each of them.  The toll that the presidency had taken on Lincoln was vividly conveyed to the visitor.

After a great lunch of wraps and salads at a Middle Eastern joint right across the street from the museum, we drove for 20 minutes to get to Lincoln’s New Salem.

At the age of 21, Lincoln left his family and went out on his own.  While guiding the flatboat toward New Orleans, Abe and his employer, Denton Offutt, came upon New Salem at a dam on the Sangamon River.  After the journey had been completed, both men set up businesses in New Salem.

New Salem was a community that lasted only about 12 years.  It was hoped that steamboats would be able to make the journey to Springfield up the Sangamon, passing New Salem which would serve as a supply hub for the journeys.  Unfortunately, the water in the Sangamon proved to be too low.

Lincoln perfected his piloting skills on this stretch of the Sangamon River. Over time, the river has greatly receded.

While in New Salem, Lincoln opened a shop with his partner, William Berry.  Berry proved to be less than ideal, and the shop “winked out” (failed).  Lincoln did not.  He joined the Army and gathered so many friends he was elected officer.  He became Sangamon County surveyor and post master.  He studied law on his own there as well.  When his former partner Berry died, the local sheriff seized Lincoln’s surveying tools (on exhibit at the site) as repayment for the debt owed on the failed business.  A colleague of Lincoln bought the tools back and gave them to Abe as an act of friendship.

When Lincoln realized that New Salem would not last as a community, he moved to Springfield.  This was a few weeks after being admitted to the Illinois bar.  The rest, as they say, is history.

In the 1930s, New Salem was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of The New Deal.  Only one original building remained on site.  The other 22 structures have been reconstructed.  Among them are two locations where the Lincoln-Berry store was in business.

Visits to New Salem have dropped sharply since the opening of the Lincoln Presidential Museum in downtown Springfield.  In truth, the New Salem site showed signs of neglect.  Almost 80 years have passed since its reconstruction.  We did not spend as much time there as originally planned.

Instead, we began the final leg of our journey home.  Our plans for this day called for a few hours driving to Indianapolis.  We pressed on even further and made it to Dayton, Ohio for the night.

Day Nine:  Dayton, OH to Western New York

All members of Kay Nou were anxious to get home.  None were more antsy than The Fashionista, who longed for a reunion with her beloved cats.  At the hotel that morning, The Major teased TF, proposing a visit to the Wright Brothers Cycle Factory, located in downtown Dayton.

We hit the road.  In a change of roles, for the first part of the trip, The Fashionista rode up front with Mama, while The Major sat in back watching The Blues Brothers with the boys.  It was a good way to end a long, 11-state trip.

— Running Girl & The Major


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