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Feature Stories

Real vs. reel: Lincoln legacy lives on in Illinois

Real vs. reel: Lincoln legacy lives on in Illinois

Cindy Richards, Editor

You saw him played by Daniel Day Lewis in the movie. Now you can see him walking the streets of Springfield, Ill., the town where Abraham Lincoln spent most of his adult years.

The success of Steven Spielberg's powerful movie, "Lincoln," has spurred renewed interest in the country's 16th president – and central Illinois is the place to walk where Lincoln walked, learn about his life and times, and in summer talk with the president and his contemporaries in the form of costumed "interpreters" who answer questions as though it's still the 1800s.

Central Illinois has more Lincoln sites and artifacts than any other place in the world. The crown jewels: the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, and Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site.

It's easy to find Lincoln during a two-day visit. Many Lincoln Springfield sites are in the center of town within easy walking distance of one another, including the incredibly well-done Lincoln Museum and the Old State Capitol Building where he uttered the famous Civil War-era words: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." The Lincoln-Herndon law office stands nearby. During summer months, downtown Springfield is populated with costumed "interpreters" who share stories and history with passersby at no cost.

If you prefer a more intimate meeting with history, consider taking the Abe Lincoln Ghost Tour led by Garret Moffett, proprietor of Springfield Walks. The stories are less about ghosts and more about the legends and lore of Lincoln and his bride, Mary Todd, who held séances in the White House. But it's worth $14 per person to hear Moffett recite Lincoln's words and explain why the president's coffin was opened five times after his death.

Looking for Lincoln

You may want to do more than walk among clustered Lincoln sites, though.

Perhaps start your Lincoln search by strolling where he did daily – at the only house he and Mary ever owned. The Lincoln Home, a national park, admits visitors free by timed admission. Be sure to stop at the visitor center first thing in the morning to get your assigned touring time, since tours do sell out.

Walking through the house, it's easy to imagine the lanky six-foot, four-inch Lincoln bent over a desk writing his next speech, or folded into an impossibly small chair, waiting to hear if he had been nominated for president on the new Republican Party ticket.

Next, walk a few blocks to the Old State Capitol, which has been painstakingly restored to its appearance in the mid-1800s when Lincoln would have argued cases there before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Across the plaza is the Lincoln-Herndon law office. There's not much to see in the law offices themselves, but the first-floor post office is worth a look. You'll see an example of a "cross-hatch" letter in which the sender composed a one-page letter, then turned the paper a quarter turn and wrote a second full page of news – a way to save money at a time when postage was very expensive and charged by weight.

By now, you'll be hungry. Stop for a bowl of homemade soup (try the cream of broccoli) and a sandwich at The Feed Store, a charming spot on the square.

Once you're rested and restored, head two blocks north to the Lincoln Museum. There, you'll find the president's life presented as two journeys. The first depicts his early life growing up poor in Kentucky and Indiana, his move to Illinois, and his political rise to prominence fueled by the country's heart-rending divide over slavery. The second covers his challenging years in the White House, ending with the moving recreation of his coffin lying in state in the Old State Capitol Building. Not to be missed is the room that puts the four-way 1860 presidential campaign in the context of modern presidential election news coverage, with the late, great newscaster Tim Russert at the anchor desk.

Beyond downtown Springfield

Now it's time to head to the Lincoln Tomb on the north side of town. Lincoln arrived at this somber place only after 14 moves, one attempted grave robbing, and five coffin openings to ensure the president was actually inside the coffin.

The last must-visit Lincoln site is 25 miles northwest of Springfield near Petersburg. Lincoln's New Salem is a reconstructed pioneer town made to look much as it did when Lincoln arrived in 1831 (minus paved paths and ramps that make much of the site wheelchair-friendly). Most days during the summer and on weekends the rest of the year, costumed volunteers pose as teachers, weavers, blacksmiths, and shop keepers demonstrating how such jobs would have been performed in Abe's time.

If you want to look further afield to find more Lincoln, there are plenty of other sites scattered throughout central Illinois.

They include Beardstown, Bloomington, Normal, Mount Pulaski, and Taylorville, towns where the young lawyer spent three months at a time "riding the circuit" to practice law. Alton, south of Springfield very near St. Louis, is the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate and the place where Sen. Lyman Trumbull authored the 13th amendment outlawing slavery in the United States. Vandalia is where Lincoln launched his legislative career.

For more information about Lincoln sites in Illinois, visit