"Be sure to use the handrail," national park guide Ronnie van Nostrand said as he led a small tour group upstairs in the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned. "It's the same railing Mr. Lincoln used."
We had all come to Springfield for just such a brush with the real Lincoln, before he left for the White House -- and lasting fame -- in 1861. In this unassuming city in central Illinois, the self-educated man polished his persona, married, suffered a child's death, famously declared "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and unwittingly prepared for his pivotal role in our nation. This spot, more than a Kentucky cabin or a monument in Washington, D.C., illuminates Lincoln's whole life.
When the 16th president of the United States was assassinated a mere five days after the end of the Civil War -- and on Good Friday, the day that marks the death of Jesus on the cross -- the country's intrigue with the towering, brooding man had just begun. Now, as the nation marks the 150th anniversaries of various Civil War battles, that fascination is being reignited.
Today, Lincoln's face is everywhere, from the cover of magazines to ads for the Guthrie Theater's production of "Appomattox." At least 20 books about the president will be published before next summer, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. And starting Friday, a representation of his crucial leadership will beam from big screens in "Lincoln," the much anticipated Steven Spielberg production starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a screenplay penned by Tony Kushner.
Despite the big names, that still will be nothing more than a depiction on a screen. During my recent trip to Illinois' capital city of 112,000, I dwelled in Lincoln's world, walking from his home to his law office and the Capitol building where he honed his political skills. I spent hours at the $90 million museum devoted to his life. At those spots and others, I could visualize -- and humanize -- the president whom Americans and the world have vaulted to saint status.
In Lincoln's time
During my tour of the house, I saw the family room where Lincoln lay by the hearth reading to his children. In the living room, Van Nostrand pointed out where Lincoln had stood when he learned he would be president. I imagined the man sitting down to absorb the life-altering news on the nearby Victorian sofa, whose black fabric had been woven horse hair.
The neat clapboard home expanded along with Lincoln's law practice and family. When he and his wife, Mary, moved there in 1844, it had three rooms. By the time they left in 1861, it had 12 rooms and a full second story, including a guest bedroom, a small maid's room and a "trunk room," where Mary kept her many hoop dresses -- that era's walk-in closet.
The home has been open for tours nearly since Robert Lincoln donated it to the state of Illinois in 1887, under the condition that it be well maintained and open free to the public. It is now the centerpiece of the National Park Service's four-square-block Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
On the day I visited, workers pounded cedar shingles atop a historic home getting its regular upkeep. To present the area as it would have looked in Lincoln's time, the Park Service replaced concrete sidewalks with wooded walkways and removed more-modern houses and one Piggly Wiggly supermarket, leaving open lots beside Italianate and colonial style houses.
Down the gravel road from Lincoln's home, a campaign float -- a diminutive log cabin on wagon wheels -- suggests that some political tactics began long ago; it was Lincoln's way of reminding voters of his humble beginnings.
Tracing Lincoln's path
In the visitor center of the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, even before we climbed the stairs to the actual offices, my tour guide took a moment to set the record straight. With her hands folded as if in prayer and her eyes insisting on contact, she told us that Lincoln was an exceptional lawyer.
She warned that the presidential museum nearby reproduced the law office on a day when the two Lincoln boys were there, wreaking havoc. One stands on a table, poised to pitch a baseball; another is ready to strike it with a fire poker. Lincoln's children did occasionally visit him at work, and they were known to be rambunctious, testing their indulgent father, she conceded before making her point: "I worry that if that is all people know about Lincoln's law career, they may not think much of his skills. They may wonder, 'What kind of lawyer was he?' He was an intelligent, adroit lawyer."
Upstairs, we passed through federal courtrooms before climbing to a sparsely furnished room on the third floor, where two tables topped by green felt formed a "T." At those tables and in just such a room -- this was a reproduction in the actual building that held Lincoln's offices -- the man who would become our 16th president quietly went about his lawyerly work.
It was what he did across the street, in the Greek Revival Old State Capitol, that defined Lincoln for the nation.
In the representatives' chamber there, a room now festooned with patriotic bunting, Lincoln riveted the 1858 Illinois Republican State Convention with his "House Divided" speech. The address warned against the discord slavery was causing in the nation, and it set the stage for the Lincoln-Douglas debates that put Lincoln in the spotlight.
My tour guide ushered me past the low wooden gate to the chamber, where a tall black stovepipe hat perches on what was Lincoln's desk. Then he shared his perspective on the great man and his accomplishments. "Everyone talks about freeing the slaves like it was this instantly great thing," the guide said. "But think of yourself as a slave, like some of my people. Suddenly, you have no shelter, no food to eat."
Well before Lincoln set anyone free, he began making his own way as a young man in a village called New Salem. I drove 20 miles outside of Springfield to get there, and passed a pleasant afternoon among replica log cabins and stores populated with historical re-enactors. A woman cooked over an open flame and a man swatted at flies in his doorway, but the two Lincoln-Berry stores were empty save for dry goods lining the shelves. Fitting that they should be without customers: The two stores had failed, and fatefully so since the underemployed Lincoln then began studying law.
Museum as storyteller
Lincoln was a masterful storyteller, according to a short film at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. So is the museum -- and it has high-tech tricks to bolster its tales.
Lifelike representations of the president and his family greet visitors in the museum's entry plaza, with a replica of the White House in the background. In the "Ghosts of the Library" theater, holograms of Civil War soldiers take form from clouds that billow out of books and boxes. Cannons boom and smoke pours out from behind the screen during the film "Through Lincoln's Eyes." The entire, enthralling effect is to carry you away to Lincoln's time.
I could have spent hours in the War Gallery, dominated by a display of Civil War photos on three red walls. A computer screen re-creates the display in miniature; tap a photo on the screen and you'll learn some compelling stuff. One image of a young soldier caught my eye, so I touched the computer. It was Frances Clalin Clayton, a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union. The computer encouraged me to find another photo of her. I did; it showed her sitting demurely, wearing a dress.
The museum, which opened in 2005, consistently ranks as one of the most visited of state-run presidential museums, and it should.
At my last stop -- Lincoln Tomb, where he, his wife and three of his four sons are buried -- impressions of the museum still swirled in my head. I recalled especially the re-creation of the presidential box at Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was shot.
That's when I met the friendly couple from Chicago, anthropology professor William Irons and his wife, Margie Rogaster. Irons told me, with sparkling eyes and some ironic glee, that he is a distant relative of John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Lincoln. It was just another vivid encounter with Lincoln lore in Springfield.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282