A touch of Springfield

Abraham Lincoln's hometown is a great place for a family vacation.

Published October 5, 2000 7:47PM (EDT)

Springfield, the capital of Illinois, was Abraham Lincoln's hometown. I went there to see what his personal life was really like, to find out why he suddenly grew a beard just before he became president, to see the house he lived in and the monument where he eventually came to rest.

But Springfield turned out to be more than just about Lincoln. It's a place where you can tour one of the great works of Frank Lloyd Wright. It's a town where the signature dish is a horseshoe sandwich and where the corn-battered, deep-fried frankfurter was invented. In short, Springfield is the spot for a quintessential American holiday.

My first stop was the Lincoln Herndon law offices, where Lincoln rose to prominence as an attorney. It was a perfect office for a young attorney because the federal courtroom was directly underneath. When Lincoln was alone in his room, he would lie down on the floor, open the corner of a trapdoor in the ceiling of the courtroom and listen to more experienced attorneys arguing their cases.

Just down the street is the home that he lived in with Mary Todd Lincoln, until he was elected president and moved to Washington. He lived there for 17 years; it was the only house he ever owned and the place where Mary gave birth to three of their four sons. I walked through it with Kim Bauer, historical research specialist for the Henry Horner Lincoln Collection at the Illinois State Historical Library.

Said Kim Bauer: "For most of Abraham Lincoln's life he was beardless. He had nothing on his chin until the time that he became president of the United States. Most people don't realize that, because they see all the photographs of Lincoln during the presidency [when] he has a beard. He grew it because of an 11-year-old girl, Grace Bidell, from Westfield, N.Y., who wrote Abraham Lincoln in October 1860. She told him that she thought he was the greatest man alive and that her father was going to vote for him, but she had four brothers and, out of those four, two were probably going to vote for him and two didn't know what they were going to do."

He continued: "She suggested that he grow a beard, and then her other two brothers would vote for him because he would look more serious. He starts to grow it and, by the time he heads to Washington in 1861, he has a full-grown beard.

"His hat is an interesting story too. When Lincoln was traveling around the circuit as a lawyer, he would put letters, legal documents, handkerchiefs, anything that he couldn't stuff into his pockets, into a stovepipe hat. William Herndon, his last law partner, called Lincoln's hat his office. And Herndon went so far as to say that Lincoln's ears stuck out because he wore his hat full of letters and manuscripts."

I also paid a visit to the reconstructed pioneer village of New Salem. Lincoln went there when he was 22 years old and stayed for six years. He clerked in a store and served as a postmaster. It was the place where he started his political career. Twenty-three timber houses and stores have been reconstructed and furnished as they were in the 1830s. Interpreters in period dress go about the daily work of the time and talk with visitors.

During the same decade that Lincoln was packing up to leave the neighborhood for Washington, a group of Amish in Pennsylvania were packing up to move to the neighborhood. They established their community in Arthur, Ill., in 1865. They were master quilt makers and their work represents some of the finest folk art produced in Illinois. More than 150 of their quilts have been brought together in a collection housed in Springfield's Illinois State Museum.

A quilt is made of three layers of fabric: a top layer; a batting, which is usually cotton or wool; and a back layer. To make the layers stay together, the Amish use a small running stitch called quilting.

After the Amish finished making their clothing, they would use the remnants to make their quilts -- they don't throw anything away. Most people are surprised at how bright the colors are, because they think of the Amish as wearing black. But actually much of their clothing -- the women's dresses, the children's dresses, the men's shirts -- are brightly colored. And sewing the little clothing pieces together into a quilt was something that was both beautiful and practical.

The Dana House is typical of Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style: The exterior is characterized by low horizontal roofs, wide overhanging eaves and ribbon art glass windows. It looks almost the same as it did when it was commissioned in 1902 for Springfield socialite and women's activist Susan Lawrence Dana. More than 100 pieces of original Wright-designed white oak furniture are still in place, along with 250 art glass doors, windows and light panels and 200 original light fixtures. There's a raised main living level, open floor plan and centralized fireplaces.

Wright was 35 years old when he got the Dana House commission, a major piece of work. He was in the process of revolutionizing Midwestern domestic architecture; this house gave him an opportunity to experiment with some new forms.

The dining room's butterfly light fixtures are the most elaborate and geometric of Wright's career. The dining room table can be expanded to accommodate 40 people, all seated on Wright-designed oak chairs.

Springfield is packed with nationally famous historic landmarks, but perhaps its most famous international landmark is its strip of Route 66 -- the highway that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles for more than 2,000 miles. Each year thousands of tourists show up in Chicago and buy a used car or a used motorcycle and head out to L.A. For about 85 percent of the trip, they're on the original Route 66. Built in 1926 as the first road designed specifically for automobiles, it captured the imagination of auto buffs.

Springfield even has an informal monument to this great American highway. For more than 50 years, Bill Shea pumped gas on Route 66. Today, he is the proud owner of one of the great private heaps of gas station and Route 66 memorabilia. Obsolete tools, old gas cans, pumps, signs -- he even purchased an entire filling station, which he is reconditioning. A national repository of junkabilia? Or eBay heaven?

The earliest restaurants in Springfield were built downtown and catered to people associated with the government. They were family-owned places -- and that's pretty much what they still are.

Maldaner's, sporting big portions and friendly service, has been in town since 1884. Cafe Brio, open and colorful, is a good spot for food with a Tex-Mex flavor. Try Augie's for decent, straightforward cooking.

The town's signature dish is called the horseshoe: toast on the bottom, hamburger in the middle, cheese sauce on top and french fries on everything. The place to taste a traditional horseshoe is Norb Andy's.

Springfield is also the ancestral home of the corn-battered, deep-fried frankfurter, properly known as a cozy dog. You can expose yourself to this gustatory delight in its original habitat, the Cozy Dog Drive In.

Springfield is also home to one of the world's great carillons. A carillon is a stationary set of chromatically tuned bells set in a tower. The earliest carillons that we know about were in China and date back more than 2,000 years. During the Middle Ages, musicians in Belgium and the Netherlands developed them into a popular musical form and built bell towers throughout northern Europe. Each tower also had one bell used for striking the hour and warning citizens of fire, flood and invasion -- or when their local cable company was going to turn off a network. The Rees Memorial Carillon in Springfield is one of the largest and finest in the world. Its open tower has 67 bronze bells, which were cast in the Netherlands and have a total weight of 90,000 pounds. They're played manually by means of a keyboard.

The death of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, came only six days after the surrender of the Confederate Army. The celebrations that were taking place to mark the conclusion of the Civil War came to an abrupt end.

As the nation mourned its president, the National Lincoln Monument Association started planning a memorial in Springfield. The monument holds the remains of the 16th president, his wife and three of their sons. The 117-foot-tall tomb is constructed of granite quarried in Quincy, Mass. Near the entrance is a bronze bust of Lincoln; its shiny nose is the result of visitors' rubbing it for good luck.

On Tuesday evenings during the summer months, the 144th Illinois Volunteer Reactivated Infantry demonstrates Civil War military drills and conducts flag retreat ceremonies. At each ceremony, a visitor receives the U.S. flag that flew over the tomb the previous week.

By Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------