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Holiday Visit to the Land of Lincoln

November 27, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Gossipy Mrs. Chatterton will have something new to chatter about this holiday season in Abraham Lincoln's hometown.

Dressed in the style of the 1850s, and chattering along as if she is out for a walk in her own neighborhood of that era, Mrs. Chatterton is never at a loss for a lively comment about mid-19th Century life as she guides visitors through the four-block historic area around the newly restored Lincoln Home.

Merchants in this state capital city of 100,000 are "adopting" homes in the historic area, and will compete in Christmas decoration of the entries and front porches. Strolling carolers will salute their work.

The restored Lincoln Home will not be in the competition but will have holiday decorations inside the rooms as well as out front, especially in the family room where Lincoln liked to stretch out on the floor to read Christmas stories aloud, and play with the children.

At the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln delivered his "House Divided" speech in 1858 and where his body lay in state after his assassination in 1865, there will be special tours throughout December sponsored by the American Assn. of University Women.

Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas in the old capitol, and it contains the original copy of his Gettysburg Address. The Lincoln Library has the largest collection of documents about his career outside of the Library of Congress.

The new state capitol will be celebrating its centennial holiday season with tours every day (on the hour and half hour) of its vaulted architecture, stained glass and mural paintings.

Holiday Services

When the First Presbyterian Church at 3rd and Washington streets holds services before and during the Christmas weekend, tribute will be paid to the Lincoln pew that was moved there from the original church. The bell from the old church that tolled the time of services for Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and their children still rings out.

At Clayville, 14 miles northwest of Springfield, where the outdoor museum presents life of the 19th Century, the old Stagecoach Inn will have a traditional Christmas decorating ceremony Saturday and next Sunday.

In New Salem, 20 miles northwest of Springfield, interpreters dressed for the Lincoln era next weekend will also begin taking visitors through the log cabin village where Lincoln spent his early adult years.

The only home Lincoln ever owned is in Springfield's four-block historic site. As a successful attorney and rising political figure who already had attacked slavery, he was able to pay $1,200 in cash and exchange a city business section lot worth $300 for the five-room cottage in 1844.

Two years earlier he had married Mary Todd, who was from a family far more socially prominent than his own. For $1,300 they later added a second story to the house, which was their home for 17 years until they moved to the White House.

The house has been restored to the era in which they lived here. Many of the original furnishings have been recovered and are back in the home. The carpeting and wallpaper have been reproduced.

Exteriors of the nearby historic homes are also being restored. Our visitor center guide, "the gossipy Mrs. Chatterton," sometimes dropped her voice and arched her eyebrows when she spoke like a neighborhood housewife of the 1850s.

On Foot or by Car

The visitor center offers self-guiding booklets as well as programs and films on Lincoln's life in Springfield. The Convention & Visitors Bureau has other self-guiding materials for walking and driving in and around Springfield.

During winter you can also tour by cross-country skis in the parks, on golf courses and across Lake Springfield.

We visited New Salem, where Lincoln and his partner in a store went bankrupt, and where he became "Honest Abe" by paying off the store's debts. There he began studying law, was postmaster, then was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. With "The541880174he was, Lincoln helped bring the state capital to Springfield.

One self-guided historic walking tour starts at the Lincoln Home, then continues to the Lincoln Depot where he delivered his hometown farewell speech as he boarded the train for Washington and his inauguration as President. He never returned alive.

You can walk on to the Lincoln-Herndon law offices in another restored building constructed in 1840. There he practiced law, although much of his legal career was spent in following the circuit court around the state.

The Lincoln Tomb always has memorial flowers during the Christmas season. The outpouring of emotion when he died was so profound that more than 75,000 filed by his casket.

Other Local Landmarks

The home of poet and "Prairie Troubadour" Vachel Lindsay is a National Historic Landmark not far from the Lincoln Home, and is being restored.

Nearby, the Dana-Thomas House is being renovated. Built in 1902 for socialite Susan Lawrence Dana, it is considered the most perfectly preserved example of Frank Lloyd Wright's early architecture.

The words of Lincoln's farewell address to Springfield are remembered in the quiet of his home: "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return . . . to His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me."

For information on Abraham Lincoln's hometown, including where to stay and dine, contact the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, 624 E. Adams St., P.O. Box 1269, Springfield, Ill. 62705-1269. Call toll-free (800) 545-7300, or (217) 789-2360.

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