Spring, when the crocus and the tourist bloom
April 8, 1977
With this column I struck the first chords in what would be a four-decade symphony of complaint about what tourists do to Springfield—and what Springfield does to tourists. It fell on deaf ears. I was reconciled by the realization that tourists and Springfield deserve each other.
Spring is that time of year when the crocus and the tourist bloom. Since 1865, Springfield has made a handsome living catering to the needs of the unsuspecting millions who've trekked to the Illinois capital to rub elbows, figuratively speaking, with Abraham Lincoln.
They come from all the world-from New Delhi, Bologna, even the remoter reaches of Manhattan. And they are easy to spot. One giveaway is the pained expression they tend to wear, usually the result of their not knowing for sure exactly where they are. (Natives often have the same expression, but in their case it's because they do know where they are.) Tourist dress, too, is distinctive. Find a strangely cautious pedestrian clutching a map, wearing a Budweiser beer hat with black socks and sandals and toting an Instamatic, and you've found a tourist. (Springfieldians, of course, do not carry cameras.)
Like soups, sex, and the flu, tourists come in several varieties. There is the traveler who collects windshield decals the way kids collect baseball cards. You've seen them. Their vehicles—usually station wagons, favored for their large amounts of window display space—are plastered with gaudy decals commemorating past expeditions to Carlsbad Caverns and Disney World. They come to Springfield as much to say they've been here as to see the sights.
Then there are the earnest parents who drag their more sensible offspring kicking and screaming back into the 19th century because it is assumed, without proof, to be "educational." (They are usually recognized by their sour demeanors, the result of swallowing one too many doses of filial ingratitude.) This immersion in another age predictably fails to provide either moral uplift or insight; why parents continue to fall prey to it I leave it to others to guess.
Tourists, like many migratory beasts, sometimes travel in herds. Every day between May and October the school buses line up outside the Lincoln Home or the Old State Capitol, looking like carp giving birth as they disgorge school children by the hundreds on their way to some of the few places even more boring than school. Sometimes the buses bring older visitors, on tours, who, inexplicably, have consented to being bored voluntarily.
Because of the worldwide appeal of the Lincoln Legend, foreign visitors constitute a solid chunk of the local tourist trade. (It should be noted in this regard that "Bonanza" is a big hit in Caracas, and they've opened at least one McDonalds' in Paris.) A sharp-eared loiterer around the Lincoln Home, for example, can hear the phrase, "Please, where are the rest rooms?" spoken in Hindi, Spanish, and German in a single June afternoon.
So popular is Springfield with our brethren abroad that the city has established a twenty-five-member International Visitors Commission whose function it is to greet and impress those exotics whom bad luck or politics has abandoned on the shores of the Sangamon. It is a measure of the respect with which foreigners regard Mr. Lincoln that they keep coming here anyway.
Economically, of course, tourists are manna from heaven—well, if not heaven, at least Topeka and Lompoc. But, considering how important they are, Springfieldians have always been surprisingly indifferent to their needs. Former Mayor Nelson Howarth was fond of complaining that as late as 1963 the city had erected no street signs showing the way to Lincoln's home, that no public rest room was installed until 1966, that it took until 1967 to put in a drinking fountain, and that store clerks downtown were unable to give directions to the place.
No more. Local tourism officials predict a rosy future. The development—I hesitate to call it an improvement—of Lincoln Home area into a National Historic Site should boost attendance there well past the 750,000 mark—until National Park Service officials have to close it for two years to repair the damage done by 750,000 who toured it last year and the year before that and the year before that. The sound-and-light show at the Old State Capitol, that $585,000 bit of lily-gilding that opened last summer, will continue to draw tourists to the mall like moths to a porchlight. The "site interpretation" project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities will attempt, through slides and tape, to explain what each of major sites is all about. (Still unanswered is how much interpretation a tourist can stand after 200 highway miles before breakfast while the kids were in the back seat finger-painting baby sister with a Mars bar.)
Why all the fuss? Perhaps Mayor Howarth put it best. "A tourist is worth 500 bushels of corn," he once explained "and is lots easier to shuck." ●