Lincoln Was Here: Connecting The Dots In Northern Illinois

Apr 22, 2015

Abraham Lincoln died 150 years ago. He was shot while attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Tourists to Illinois often head to Springfield to learn more about the 16th President. That’s not the only place to learn about his life and legacy. Susan Stephens and Jenna Dooley set out to trace his steps across northern Illinois.

Snacks in hand, we set out in the station's little red car, full of gas and the GPS fired up. Our goal was simple: visit as many places where Abraham Lincoln set foot in this part of the state.

It's so easy to forget just how vast northern Illinois really is. We logged hundreds of miles over two days.

These are probably places you drive near all of the time. Now, it's time to connect the dots.

Freeport

Lincoln interpreter George Buss sits on a bench near Debate Square in Freeport. It's the site where Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas in 1858 for a Senate seat.
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

Freeport was an obvious destination on our list. It was the site of one the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Lincoln, a rising Republican, was trying to unseat Democrat Stephen Douglas for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. Freeport was their second stop of seven Illinois towns.

Why Freeport?

Who better to ask than Abraham Lincoln himself? Okay, we found the next best source at the exact square where the Freeport debate was held so many years ago. Freeport's George Buss is a Lincoln interpreter. That means he dresses the part, can field any question about Lincoln, and has even been active in national portrayals of the president. Pretty close, right?!

"In me challenging Douglas to that series of debates back in ’58, because I was the challenger, it was Douglas’ position then to choose the locations. Him being a railroad man and all, he looked on the map and he saw where there were North-South and East-West railroads as well as river traffic. We come into Freeport on the railroad here and then commenced all the way to Jonesboro."

But we wondered, If there were thousands of people in the square without microphones, how could you hear him? So we ran a little experiment with our Lincoln.

If you want to visit Debate Square, it's near Union Dairy at the corner of State Avenue and Douglas Street.

The best part? The statues are life-sized!

Stillman Valley

This statue in Stillman Valley remembers a major military defeat in the Black Hawk War. Lincoln was a young soldier responsible for burying the fallen in this battle.
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

If you are looking for a much more solemn Lincoln experience, head to Stillman Valley on Ill. 72. After that, the directions are quite simple. Look for the village water tower.

There you will find a monument honoring the Battle of Stillman's Run in 1832. It was the first battle of the Blackhawk War, and a bloody affair. Sources say Lincoln was a volunteer soldier tasked with burying the fallen. The monument was built in 1901 with funds from the Illinois General Assembly.

To learn more about Lincoln's role, we turned to retired Northern Illinois University Professor Jeff Chown. He and some of his students made a documentary about Lincoln and the Black Hawk War.

Chown says the Black Hawk was a formative experience for Lincoln. He wasn't on the front lines chasing Black Hawk but, later, when he needed to make the grave decisions to unite his country through war, he knew what he was asking of his countrymen. It was during his short service in the Illinois militia that he learned how to write a letter to the family of a dead soldier, how supply lines worked, and what it was like to be hungry and frightened in the wilderness, surrounded by the enemy.

Lincoln liked to recount his time in the Black Hawk War for the rest of his life, saying the only time he ever raised his sword was to swat away the swarms of mosquitoes. Chown says, ironically, the most danger Lincoln faced and his greatest act of bravery during the Black Hawk War was standing up to his own men, who had elected him captain because they thought the 23-year-old jokester would be easy to serve under.

One apple jack-fueled night, his men wanted to kill an old Potawatomi scout who was working for them: they had come to northern Illinois to hunt Indians. Lincoln backed down the mob by telling them if they wanted to kill the innocent scout, they would have to go through him first. Chown says among the many Lincoln myths, this one appears to be true. Here's how he confirmed the story:

Oregon

"Paths of Conviction, Footsteps of Fate" - Oregon
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

As you drive into Oregon, Ill., along Illinois 2 just south of Route 64, you will encounter a massive bronze statue by local sculptor Jeff Adams. It's a relatively recent addition, dedicated in 2002. It's called "Paths of Conviction, Footsteps of Fate," and features Abraham Lincoln and Chief Black Hawk rising from a solid foundation.

The two figures may never have met in real life, but the statue places these two bold figures from history right next to each other, both reaching out-- Lincoln outward and Black Hawk to the sky.

It is a definite conversation piece.

Oglesby

There is a temporary exhibit at Illinois Valley Community College. It's called "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War." It is a traveling exhibition organized by the National Constitution Center, based in Philadelphia, and the American Library Association Public Programs Office. As we glanced at the kiosks of photos and information, we encountered instructor Luke Olivero, who was taking his ESL class on a tour of the exhibit. He says it's an effective way to teach the conflict in America's history.

Temporary exhibit at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby.
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

The visuals were very eye-catching, and even lent themselves to our own re-enactment:

At IVCC, we also tracked down instructor Betsy Klopcic, who has studied Mary Todd Lincoln's time at the Bellevue Place in Batavia, Illinois.

A decade after Lincoln's assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln was declared insane by trial in 1875. She arrived at Bellevue Place and stayed there for several months.

"You hear that she was in an insane asylum," Klopcic explained to us. "They called them that. They also used the word sanitarium for that. The Batavia place, Bellevue Place was really pretty small. It was limited just to women, and typically women who were well off. This doctor believed in a thing called moral therapy. Basically, it was ‘eat right, sleep right, have some rest,’-- get some things that get you interested in some things besides the things that are weighing on your mind or causing you difficulty."

Bellevue Place is not open for tours. It has since been transformed into apartments.

Sterling

Manahan Home - Sterling
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

When Lincoln was 47, he visited Sterling to attend and speak at a rally for presidential candidate John C. Fremont. He spent a night at the home of Sheriff William Manahan during that visit. According to the

Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society, the site has been home to several businesses over the years including a beauty shop, office for the Whiteside County Board of Realtors, and a bridal shop. The Manahan Home was restored in 2007 to give it the look and feel of the late 1850s. It's located at 607 E. 3rd Street in Sterling.

Dixon

Lincoln monument in Dixon. It is said to be the only statue that portrays Lincoln in uniform.
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

Keeping a watchful eye on downtown Dixon, the Lincoln Monument is said to be the only one which shows Lincoln in uniform. It is located in Presidents Park on the north side of the Rock River.

It was dedicated in 1930. What struck us about this depiction is Lincoln's view of the city. In some ways, he seems to be perpetually "on guard." 

Directly across the river is a statue of Ronald Reagan.

Dixon was the site of a ferry and tavern during the Black Hawk War.

Final Thoughts

If we had to pick a "can't miss" site, we both agreed it would be the monument in Stillman Valley. If you take a moment to soak up the history of that place, it's hard not to be moved.

Susan: "It's the place I can't stop thinking about. There's so much to think about just from being there."

Jenna: "It's a very small town, and then you just realize the gravity of what happened there."

There is no shortage of Lincoln sites in Illinois. It is the "Land of Lincoln" after all. The state has roads, bridges, schools, and libraries named after the 16th President. But sometimes it's nice to break from the daily commute near these locations and soak in the history and walk where Honest Abe walked so many years ago.

Remember, you don't have to go too far, it's just a road trip away.

More places to find Lincoln in northern Illinois

The seven Lincoln-Douglas Debate Sites, including Ottawa and Freeport.

There’s another site where Lincoln is said to have helped bury the dead in the Black Hawk War. There’s a monument towering over soldiers’ gravestones in Kent, in Stephenson County. Kellogg’s Grove was a battle site in the Black Hawk War.

Lincoln slept in Polo in 1856, at the home of the founder of the town, Zenas Aplington. There’s a plaque, and the site is now the Polo Historical Society’s headquarters.

Lincoln was in Rockford only once: as an attorney on a team to defend John H. Manny in a lawsuit over reaper patents in 1855.  Lincoln did some research in Rockford, but was removed from the case when it was moved to Ohio.

Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe has a huge collection of presidential artifacts, including a room dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Check out the hair clippings, coffin handles, and Mrs. Lincoln’s mourning skirt.

Your on-line home for Lincoln documents, Lincoln/Net, is based at Northern Illinois University.

And in Wisconsin, Janesville’s Lincoln-Tallman House. Lincoln slept there after speeches in Beloit.