Who was the man behind the legendary beard?
He was an attentive father and a devoted husband, an impassioned lawyer and a grandiloquent speaker, a generous neighbor and a dog-loyal friend. He was not, however, the 16th president of the United States. At least not yet.
Springfield, Ill., covers the clean-shaven period of Abraham Lincoln’s life, from 1837, when he arrived in the newly minted state capital, to 1861, when he boarded the train bound for Washington and the White House. The city 200 miles south of Chicago claims to contain more Lincoln sites than any other destination in the country.
As the president-elect proclaimed in his farewell address at the train station on Monroe and 10th streets: “Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”
According to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, of the world’s notable figures, Lincoln has received more ink than anyone else except Jesus. This month, the president will step into the Hollywood starlight in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” based on a Doris Kearns Goodwin biography. The film will focus on the final months of his presidency. But he flourished professionally and personally during the Springfield years.
“If we can’t be known as the home of the Simpsons,” said Dave Bourland, curator of the Executive Mansion, referring to the animated TV family that lived in another Springfield (rumored to be the one in Oregon), “we can be known as the home of Lincoln.”
Most of the Lincoln sites fan out along an easy-to-navigate grid in Springfield’s modest downtown. The Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, for example, sit across the square from the Old State Capitol, which is opposite the bank that safeguards a ledger of Lincoln’s financial transactions.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is four blocks from the National Park Service’s Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Cut left on Monroe and you’ll hit the Lincoln Depot, where the president-elect bade Springfield a final adieu, or hop over to Seventh Street and you’ll pass the First Presbyterian Church, where the Lincolns rented a red-cushioned pew for 10 years.
If you start pining for Lincoln on a stretch of street without an official attraction, simply stop at one of 48 informational placards marking the Lincoln Story Trail. Around the corner from Abraham Lincoln’s National Museum of Surveying, for instance, I read up on the Lincolns’ marriage (based on affection, not a loveless arrangement) and Mary Todd’s wedding ring (purchased at Chatterton’s jewelry shop on Fifth Street). Between a visit to his house and the depot, I learned about his fancy taste in transportation: In 1852, he purchased a new carriage for $260, and a year before running for the executive office, he installed silk curtains on glass hooks. Honestly, Abe, isn’t that a bit extravagant?
Though the capital is the largest city in central Illinois, it behaves like a small town. Many businesses still punch the 1950s clock, closing in time for the 5 o’clock news and a dry martini. A few attractions are open daily, such as the museum and the Lincoln home, but others limit their hours, especially off-season. My advice: Start early and don’t stop till security kicks you out.