American Sabbatical 012: 9/12/96

Lincoln Country

9/12 (continued).. Illinois.

Peggy went for a tour of the Masters’ house and got the low down. I sat down on a wagon tongue at New Salem Village and played with watercolor. Lincoln ran a store, briefly, at this site, where a commercial town had been set up on spec. No farmers here, just merchants, millers and tradesmen. For whatever reason, Petersburg beat out New Salem for the trade (politics, wouldn’t you guess?), and the place got plowed under. But the foundations were still there, and the CCC resurrected the place in the 30’s. Now a state historic site with reenactors in costume and a MacDonalds in the gift shoppe, the ville itself still has a magic feel out of time. Well done!

Details of note: no cap-piece on the roof ridge, one side is shingled up over the other past the ridge and that’s that; mud and log chimneys sitting on laid rock hearths and fireplaces, so they weren’t entirely incendiary; split-rail fences had slanting upright tie-pieces at every juncture, so they were even more lumber-intensive than imagined.

Dogtrot (Bryce)

One of Peggy’s quests was to find out about Lincoln’s patent. He’s the only prez to hold one. So we asked the local historo-techie. Turns out Lincoln ended up at New Salem because the flat boat he was working up river got stuck on a bar there. (You might say old Abe ran into a bar in New Salem.) This must have festered with the tall one (maybe New Salem got to him too), because he later designed a device for freeing stuck flat boats. Bob, our informant at the village, told us this, and described it as a series of air chambers and tanks. “Like a camel?” I asked, remembering my Patrick O’Brien. “Well, we don’t have many of those here,” was the response.

Flatboat (Bodmer sketch 1832)
It was a relief to be under the tall trees in a nineteenth century town out of the highway glare. But we had horses to ride. Next we zigged and zagged to Springfield, a horse in a different garage. Another state capital that feels like a papershufflers paradise. An impenetrable maze of one-way streets marching in lockstep around faceless state institutions. In the heart of Springfield, however, is Lincoln’s house and a reconstructed neighborhood. You can actually get a sense of the man, the who-he before the icon, on this restored side street. Modest and unassuming, a small-town man. No wonder the powerful sneered.

A model of his patent was on display, if you’re still curious. It consisted of a set of bellows on either side of the boat which could be inflated, expanding vertically to lift the boat, or rock it side to side. Again we see the mad urge to verticality in this landscape.

(Memo #12)


Who? Abraham Lincoln

What? reconstructed frontier village where he had a store; and only home he and Mary Lincoln ever owned

Where? New Salem, Illinois (store); Springfield, Illinois (house)

When? 1831 - New Salem, Springfield about 1840

How? first got to New Salem by flatboat. Bought house in state capital where he was a successful lawyer-politician

Topics: Lincoln, historical reconstructions, created communities, rivers
myths and the people behind them.

(anon. 1850s)

Questions: Who is the only US president to hold a patent? What was it? What presidents were surveyors? What is truth and what is myth about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln? How industrial was preindustrial society? What rivers would be accessible from New Salem, Illinois? How do flat boats get up river? Did Petersburg have a geographical advantage over New Salem? Was Springfield really more “central” than Vandalia as a state capital?

Visiting both New Salem and Springfield gave me a chance to go behind the myth of Abraham and Mary Lincoln to the real man and the real woman. New Salem is where Abraham started his independent life as a young adult. It was also a created or consciously built community that shows how businessmen approached the frontier, and how some settlements failed and why. Springfield was the center of
Lincoln’s political and legal career, his marriage, and his family life until he left for the White House.

New Salem

NEW SALEM - an unsuccessful planned community, recreated.

New Salem is a reconstructed community based on photographs and excavations. The current buildings were mostly built in the 1930’s by a CCC group. It is two miles from Petersburg. There is an entry and parking lot and fenced enclosure to the village area. You walk in down a wooded lane with split rail fences alongside, small clapboard cabins stand every hundred feet or so, smoke coming from the chimneys, and people in period clothing walking about at their chores. You really are transported.

Another angle
The original village was created in the 1830’s by two businessmen to be a business center. “It was really just like a strip mall!” said one guide. The idea was to provide stores and a mill at the head of a river system. Residents were not intended to be farmers and the founders sold small lots along central lanes. The houses are in their original places, often on the original foundations. There is a blacksmith shop, two stores (one where Lincoln worked), a tavern, a carding mill, a post office, a saw mill, and a grist mill by the river. The intention was to take advantage of the river that went close by at the foot of a bluff. The only problem was that the river didn’t cooperate, flat boats got stuck on bars and no steamer could get up to the village. Still, when you hear that Petersburg - TWO MILES AWAY - became successful through the machinations of local politicians, you wonder. How much difference DOES two miles make?

In this small village, I got a strong feeling of the mix of industrial and preindustrial elements. We somehow get the feeling that there was a totally preindustrial folk society with all implements made crudely by the family and then -suddenly - the great mills. We forget the long period in which mass-produced items aided the preindustrial farmer. Industrial really refers to machine power and machine made implements.

For example, take the New Salem carding mill. Remember this was the 1830’s. You have a large machine that pulled fibers through teeth (carded or combed them) and aligned the fibers so they could them be spun. The machine itself is of heavy metal with pulleys and drums and metal teeth. Belts run to the outside. We went out expected a stream. None in sight. It turns out this is the only OX-DRIVEN CARDING MILL still extant. A team of oxen were/are harnessed to a wheel, as they walk in a circle the wheel turns and the energy is transferred to the carding machine. A mix of animal power and machine.

Dutch Treat

The tavern provided a beautiful demonstration of how cooking was being changed in the 1830’s. It was open fire cooking. The demonstrator said that oak was the wood of choice because it is dense, burns slow and gives wonderful coals. She was in the middle of cooking corn bread in a Dutch oven. The dough is put in a heavy prefab iron pot with flat lid. Live coals are then heaped on and around the pot. We got to see and smell the gorgeous result! I’d like to try this method. Another type of “stove” was a large tin box that was set on the floor in front of the open fire. It could be used for bread or a roast since a spit went through the box and a roast could be turned in the box and the juices collected on the bottom and used to baste it. How logical to make the next step and put the fire itself in a cast iron box. Mary Lincoln had a new cast iron stove in the 1840’s in Springfield!

Log Chimney
Basically, Lincoln got to New Salem because of a flat boat. He and two friends hired out to a man whose goods they took down the Mississippi by flat boat and then returned to Illinois. He showed a cool attitude when the flat boat got stuck on a bar, the owner remembered and hired Lincoln a bit later to help in his store in New Salem.

The flat boat incident also spurred Lincoln to creation. He designed a set of two expandable air tanks to go under a flat boat. Air could be pumped from one to the other to maneuver a stuck boat off a sand bar. There is a model of the device in the small Lincoln museum in Springfield.

Deciding on a law career, Lincoln moved the twenty-two miles to Springfield in 1837. It was then a town of 2500 people. In 1842 he married Mary Todd. He lived in Springfield until he moved to Washington in 1861 as president.


(Model of original Lincoln house)

The four block area around the Lincoln home downtown have been blocked off to traffic. There are board sidewalks and sawdust covered streets. The houses in the area are all being prettified and painted and each has a sign describing the owner and his/her relation to the Lincolns. You really do get the feel of a neighborhood without modern intrusions.

The Lincoln house is modest and quite close to the street. I remember pictures I had seen and how the house seemed small, especially with Abe Lincoln standing in front. In fact, it is a small house for a successful lawyer and politician (more below) and began smaller still. It had belonged to the minister who married Abraham and Mary Todd. When the Lincolns bought it for $1500 it was a one story house like the one next door, basically four rooms on the ground floor with kitchen in the el and low attic rooms upstairs. The Lincolns added a full height second floor. I think the proportions seem odd because it is so near the street. Most other two story houses of the time and place stand back thirty feet or so, there is a scant ten feet to the Lincoln’s front door. They have a deep fenced back yard that held a pump over the well (near the back door) a wash house (that was later torn down), a vegetable garden, an outhouse, and a barn. They always kept a horse and a cow and probably chickens, too. Our image of Abe should include him bridling his horse to ride the circuit and hitching up a wagon. Mary probably milked the cow, planted and picked vegetables and collected eggs.

There are five downstairs rooms. To the left as you enter is the formal double parlor. Folding doors can divide it into a parlor in the front and a study in the back. Sometimes Lincoln would received gentleman in one section while Mary met the ladies in the others. The furnishing are period, as close to the original as possible, with historic drawings of the Lincoln house used for reference. The guide noted that the recreated wallpaper was accurate in pattern but not in color since the existing drawings are black and white. The horsehair furniture did belong to the Lincolns. The rooms are perhaps fifteen feet square, the furniture is sparse. There are heavy curtains and good knickknacks on the mantle. Apparently the boys were not allowed in those two rooms.

Lincoln House

To the right of the front door and stairwell is the large family room. The carpet was a woven pattern with broad background strips of green, red, white. It apparently could be ordered in strips and then sewn together. The heavy curtains “pooled” on the floor with extra fabric. The guide pointed out that this was for a nature effect. The green curtains and then the pools. This also had the effect of holding the curtains nearer the windows to retain heat. The furniture (horsehair chairs and several rockers) was small for Lincoln. The guide said he most often lolled on the floor often without shoes. Or he might turn a rocker over and lean on it for a backrest. There was a sewing kit, as Mary sewed many of the family’s clothes.

The guide said the Lincoln boys were considered “hellions” by some neighbors, indulged by their parents. They were all educated at home. Robert then went off to a boarding school and later college. Eddie died at three, Willie died in the White House, Tad died in his late teens a few years after his father’s death.


Behind the family room was the dining room - Lincoln’s favorite meal was a good steak, corn bread and coffee - and behind that the small kitchen. Mary Lincoln made the kitchen smaller when she remodeled since she preferred a large dining room. (“She was always trying to civilize her husband,” said the guide.) The stove was the latest cast iron model but seemed short to me, too much bending.

4 poster
Upstairs there were five bedrooms. A guest room, separate rooms for Mary and Abraham as was customary at the time. Lincoln’s bedroom over the front good parlor had a tiny desk where he wrote. Mary’s room was over the study. She had a wooden ”close stool” rather than a chamber pot. There was one bedroom for the boys since there were never more than two in residence, and a back bedroom for the hired girl. The furnishing are fairly plain, the rooms average.


I came away from my tours with a new respect and affection for Mary Todd, an educated and ambitious young woman who chose an unlikely suitor, unacceptable by her family’s measure. She reveled in an informal family life quite unlike that of her childhood home, managed a home and four sons with one servant, coped when her husband was away on the legal circuit for months at a time and survived the deaths of three of her four sons (all before adulthood) and the assassination of her husband. Far from the snobbish social climber I expected, Mary Lincoln was a loved neighbor who sewed her family’s clothes and cooked well. She married a self-educated and homely man raised in poverty. Her faith in him was rewarded. How important was she to his success?

“I would rather marry a good man - a man of mind - with a hope and bright prospects ahead for position - fame & power than to marry all the houses of gold in the world.” -Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary's Kitchen

Why was Mary Lincoln so vilified? I had “known” she was a heavy spender who loved clothes and drove the president into debt. She was a manic depressive who apparently held seances in the White House after her son died there. She was frivolous, vain, ambitious, I’d heard. There were claims that she was a southern spy during the Civil War.

Well, Mary Lincoln was a different type of first lady (any modern parallels?) Highly educated - thirteen years of formal schooling (a husband who had only one). She came from an affluent Kentucky family, her sister was married to the son of the Illinois governor. When she got to the White House, the grande dame side of Mary Lincoln came out. She hostessed grand occasions, bought fine clothes, added to the elegant surroundings. Look at the pictures of the Lincolns during his presidency and you will see an elegant couple in an elegant home.

In spite of her loyalty to Lincoln and the North she was harshly judged, mainly because her family was southern and slave owning. Several brothers fought and died for the South. Mary’s agony during the war must have been extreme, but an agony common to many families split by the war.


Then there is the image of Abe. Lanky, unkempt, awkward, absentminded, disorganized. But...according to the guides he was an excellent lawyer making far more income than most people. He speculated in land in Iowa. As a politician he was elected and reelected to the state legislature and successfully ran for president for a new political party.

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