Visit with Young Abe Lincoln at New Salem Historic Site
Byline: Mike Michaelson
As a young man, Abraham Lincoln lived for six years in the Illinois village of New Salem, about 20 miles northwest of Springfield. Here, in the cooper's shop, he studied law books by the light of a fire made from cooper's shavings.
As a young student, our 16th president tramped what is now the Lincoln Post Road to borrow some of those books from a friend in Springfield. As a surveyor, Lincoln helped lay out this route through the rolling, wooded farmland of Menard County. As postmaster for the village of New Salem he often walked it for several miles to deliver a letter he thought important. (He also avidly read all of the newspapers that arrived at the village.) Later, Lincoln traveled this road as a circuit-riding lawyer and campaigning politician.
With multiple talents and interests, Lincoln also was part owner and manager of two mercantile stores. He also served as a captain in the local militia and pilot of the sternwheeler paddleboat Talisman, the only steamboat to successfully navigate the nearby Sangamon River, carrying freight and passengers. Today, visitors enjoy 45-minute excursions on a replica of that boat. The dock lies just a short walk from the village.
You'll find much of this history preserved and re-enacted at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, a pretty park containing a re-creation of the village of Lincoln's time, with timber houses, a tavern, shops and other businesses and a school where church services were held. Accurately restored and adapted to the lifestyles of the 1830s, the village comes back to life with oxen and other farm animals and with interpreters providing a historic overview.
This premier historic attraction constantly improves upon itself with expanded interpretive programs and a full calendar of lively special events.
As you walk through the winding paths of the village, you can hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a blacksmith's hammer, smell fresh-baked bread and watch and admire the skilled hands of a candlemaker and spinner. You can visit the Miller blacksmith shop and the Onstot cooper shop and you pass men splitting rails, as was done in the 1830s when they were used to fence animals out of the corn and wheat fields.
Upcoming events well worth making a special trip to New Salem (with, perhaps, an overnight stay in Springfield) include the annual Summer Festival (July 7 and 8), where activities include teaching school and making felt, shoes, brooms, soap, corn-husk dolls and Windsor chairs. You'll find wagon rides, a quilting bee, corn boil and demonstrations of flax processing.
On both days, the New Salem Militia musters with a flag-raising ceremony, morning parade, military drills throughout the day, a wrestling match, tug-of-war and flag retreat ceremony. Visitors stepping into a tavern will find "Mrs. Rutledge" cooking and talking about goings-on in the village. Highlights include the re- enacted nuptials of a young village couple.
Prairie Tales (Aug. 4 and 5), a nationally renowned storytelling festival, attracts high-caliber performers. Storyteller and ballad singer Dan Keding has performed throughout the United States, Great Britain and Ireland. Elizabeth Ellis, who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains surrounded by storytellers, crisscrosses America telling her folk tales and stories of heroic American women. Adella Adella the Storyteller is Adella Gautier of New Orleans, who has performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and who brings a high-energy participatory style of storytelling.
Two stages set up among the village's log buildings operate continuously both days, rain or shine. Hay-bale seating is provided, but visitors may bring blankets or lawn chairs. The event makes an ideal family outing. Food will be available.
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