Lincoln’s New Salem (we think)
See Illinois (unpublished)
Not much more than a tourist brochure with pretensions, I suppose—if the tourist brochures were better. New Salem is an interesting place, less because of what it isn't, and what is was meant to be.
Readers curious to learn more about what is was should consult Benjamin P. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem. Published in 1934, a revised edition was put out by the Southern Illinois University Press in 1988. Out-dated in some respects—archeologists have added considerably to the record about the place since the 1930s—the book remains what critic and historian John Hallwas calls the a “superb achievement” and “a stylistic gem.” (Thomas, remember, also was the author of what was for many years considered the best one-volume biography of Lincoln.)
Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site is some 20 miles northwest of Springfield, on a bluff overlooking the Sangamon River valley. It attracts the most visitors of all of Illinois’s state-owned historic sites; in the mid-1990s some 600,000 visitors a year plodded through it, which was fully a fifth of all the traffic at Illinois’s more than 50 state-owned historic sites. Clearly there is something special about the place, even allowing for the fact that many of those thousands of visitors are schoolchildren dragooned for outings. Certainly, New Salem is popular with teachers, who can let their charges run wild without fear of breaking a mood, as at his tomb, or a chair, as at his house.
Before it was an historic site, New Salem was a village. It sprouted almost overnight, in 1828, and flourished for about ten years, at its peak achieving a population of not quite three hundred inhabitants. Lincoln arrived there in the summer of 1831 at the age of 22, in what was his first foray into the world as an adult. While a New Salemite he clerked in Dennis Offut’s grocery store and enlisted to fight in the Black Hawk War, both for money more than adventure. Upon his return from the fighting in 1832, he asked the village’s voters if he might represent them in the state legislature; they said no. He ran again and won in 1834 and was re-elected two years later.
The more colorful incidents from Lincoln’s time there—the wrestling matches with the Clary Grove boys, the walking to borrow books—have proved irresistible to novelists, poets, and filmmakers. None looms larger that the supposed romance between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. In 1832, Lincoln boarded for a time at James Rutledge’s tavern, where he became acquainted with the proprietor’s 19-year-old daughter Ann. A smitten Lincoln, who at that point had dared no romance with a woman, withheld his suit because Ann was betrothed to another man. Her engagement was doomed, unfortunately, and so was Ann. She fell ill with fever and died at 22, leaving Lincoln, some intimates said, forever scarred.
Ann appeared on the stage with Lincoln for the first time in William Herndon’s 1888 biography of Lincoln. Herndon based the tale on recollections of neighbors and friends. Evidence so long after the event was held suspect, as were Herndon’s motives in collecting it; many assumed he concocted or at least dramatized the incident to belittle Lincoln’s widow Mary, whom he loathed.
Accurately or not, Ann—she is on a first-name basis with almost everyone these days—is widely recalled as Lincoln’s Lost Love. As such she has attained a posthumous stature that rivals that of Lincoln’s wife. (Tourists can ride into central Illinois aboard an Amtrak train named the Ann Rutledge; there is not so much as a bus named after Mary Todd.) Her grave is in the nearby town of Petersburg, to whose tourism industry she is as essential as Lincoln is to Springfield’s. Springfield was for years divided into pro- and anti-Ann factions, which coincided almost perfectly with the long-standing anti- and pro-Mary Todd factions; when Edgar Lee Masters poo-poohed the Ann Rutledge story in his 1931 biography Lincoln: The Man, pro-Anns demanded that the quotation from his Spoon River that had been carved into her new headstone in Oakland Cemetery be expunged.
Historians remain more circumspect about Ann; most concede that the couple probably had a relationship, but its intensity or the permanence of its effect on Lincoln remain matters of speculation. It hardly matters. As historian Benjamin Thomas wrote resignedly, “It has become part of American folklore, and popular opinion resents any effort to disprove it.”
The young Lincoln had a future. New Salem, alas, did not, and in April of 1837, he left the village for a law career in the capital city, eighteen miles away. Meanwhile, nearby Petersburg sucked commerce out of New Salem. The village was soon abandoned, its presence betrayed only by foundation stones, forgotten by all but local historians until the 1870s. It was then that biographers—Ward Hill Lamon, Herndon, Ida Tarbell—began to explain Lincoln in terms of his heredity and early social environment.
It was not only biographers who became fascinated with New Salem. Publisher William Randolph Hearst had an abiding interest in Lincoln and bought the New Salem site in 1906. Hearst conveyed it in trust to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, which in turn conveyed it to the State of Illinois in 1919, with the intention of seeing it made a memorial to Lincoln’s early years.
Much of the reconstruction of the town and its buildings was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The research that guided the CCC’s work was fastidious by the standards of the day. The work drew on land surveys, real estate records, maps, and the recollections of the still-living residents. Cabin sites were determined—old cellars and foundation stones helped here—after which the buildings themselves were recreated. How much the result looks like the village Lincoln knew is impossible to say. The only indisputably authentic elements of the reconstruction were a few pieces of original furniture that were donated by descendants of Lincoln’s old neighbors, and the shell of the Onstot cooper shop, which had been moved to Petersburg and was reassembled in 1922 on its original site.
The reconstructed New Salem inevitably has an air of the stage set, and indeed the first version of the modern village was exactly that. In 1917, Petersburg’s Old Salem Lincoln League organized a pageant depicting episodes in Lincoln’s life as part of the state’s centennial celebrations, and as a backdrop for the show erected cabins on the sites of three stores, a tavern, and a house. Plainly inauthentic, these cabins were subsequently torn down. The 1930s version of the village that stands today looks authentic enough to have served as backdrop for made-for-TV movies set in the period.
As a center for historic interpretation, there is no place in Illinois quite like New Salem. It is an ongoing exposition of 19th century village life in Illinois, offering visitors a chance to witness such events as a mustering of the local militia complete with a parade, marching drills, and weapons demonstrations. Visitors not only watch such demonstrations, they can get hands-on experience in workshops designed to teach them about the day-to-day life of Illinois’s pioneer settlers—how to make wooden wall sconces, candle lanterns, or stick chairs, how to cook over an open-hearth, how to make straw hats and weave cloth, even how to divine the secrets in the bumps on people’s heads.
Keeping the show going requires the help of dozens of volunteers from the area. It is hard work. Not pioneer housewife faced a chore as daunting as docenting on a typical spring day, when as many as 70 school buses disgorge children whose energy often exceeds their curiosity. Visitors may not always get a feel for frontier life but the site interpreters often do; cabins are not heated, and on colder days never get as warm as 50 degrees even with a fire roaring in the hearth.
Docents are volunteers. So are the farmers who work the fields with horse teams, and the craftsmen who demonstrate such traditional nineteenth-century arts and crafts as rope-making, tin-smithing, and the manufacture of rifles and powder horns. Area sheep even donate to the project, in the form of wool used by village spinners in their demonstrations.
At New Salem, those who can are expected to teach. The site is an ongoing workshop in the arcane arts of the historic site interpreter. In lectures and workshops, experts offer tips on sprinkling an interpretation with 1830s phrases and the proper use of period accents. Larger issues are ventilated here too. Should the priority of a recreated site be education or economics? Entertainment or enlightenment? Who decides? Does history—and this is a particularly knotty question at sites owned by the taxpayers, as New Salem is—belong to the people or the professionals? A recent former director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which runs New Salem, liked to remind people that such sites were competing with Disneyland, Wisconsin resorts, casino boats, and the like. “You can’t have display boxes [at historic sites] anymore,” she told a reporter, “and expect people to go home thrilled.” But are thrills what visitors to an historic site should expect?
Authenticity may be more appropriate than excitement, but it is no easier to pull off. Visitors’ 21st century experience colors their perceptions of the 19th. The typical tourist tends to see the hearth as a fireplace, not a cook stove, the oxcart as a theme park ride, not a truck. To take visitors closer to the actual, the experts use two basic approaches. One approach derives from the lecture platform, in which an expert in the form of a guide simply instructs the visitor on what she sees. The other approach is modeled on the theatrical stage. Interpreters dress in periodic costume and affect period speech and mannerisms; in the fully developed versions they interact with the public in character. (Interpreters at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Park, eight miles south of Charleston in east-central Illinois, portray members of the Lincoln family and neighbors on a daily basis during the summer months, doing daily activities common to an 1840s farm and talking to visitors in a period dialect.) New Salem’s site managers in recent years have used a blend of the two that they call “interpretive theater,” in which first- and third-person interpretation is combined with re-enactments of such events from New Salem’s past as weddings and temperance sermons.
While it might be possible, within reasonable limits, to recreate New Salem as a place, it is harder to recreate New Salem as an experience. The modern version is lacking the dirt, the pestilential insects, the near-constant stink of smoke and dung that typified the original. Even with more faithful attention paid to such detail, the visitors would still be mere spectators. The village would be a more accurate sort of museum diorama, but still a diorama.
New Salem may not look exactly as it did in 1830s but it does look exactly as it did in the 1950s and the 1970s. The illusion of changelessness, of a place outside time, is one of the place’s more appealing traits but it is perhaps the least authentic of all the impressions one takes from New Salem, since the village’s own history illustrates just how evanescent was life on the frontier. Travel writer Bill Bryson visited in the late 1980s and found the faux village “impossibly quaint and appealing.” He adds what charmed visitors so often overlook, which is that if life there was in fact so appealing, New Salem would still be a real town and not a simulacrum of one. ●