The Illinois town where `Honest Abe' earned his nickname

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's been called a ``backwoods Williamsburg.'' New Salem State Park, 10 twisty miles off Interstate 55 in central Illinois, is a perfectly reconstructed 1830s pioneer settlement. It's worth a visit, not just to appreciate the historic cooper shop, the 12 timber residences, the saw and grist mill, the schoolhouse, or the blacksmith's shop, but to imagine and appreciate the life lived here by New Salem's most famous resident: Abraham Lincoln.

The little river town was the site of Lincoln's first public act of cool-headedness. The year was 1831. Lincoln, 22 years old, was piloting a large flatboat full of corn and live hogs down the Sangamon River, on his way to the Mississippi and New Orleans, when the boat got stuck on a dam outside the hamlet of New Salem. Townsfolk looked on as the stern of the boat began to fill with water. But young Lincoln ingeniously shifted the cargo, bored a hole in the bow of the craft, letting the water run out, then plugged the hole -- thus saving the trip.

The townfolk were impressed. And though Lincoln did not know it at the time, he would spend his next six years right in New Salem. He would be a clerk, a storeowner, postmaster, and surveyor. He would study law in his spare time and lead a company of men in the Black Hawk War. Finally, at age 25 he would be elected to the State Assembly from this frontier town of 100 persons, mostly farmers who cut below the tough prairie sod to find some of the richest soil in the world.

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The area was also good soil for Lincoln's own development. Tiny New Salem offered one of America's greatest historical figures the time and the place to learn who he was and what his abilities were. Lincoln earned the nickname ``Honest Abe'' here long before it became popular in the press. More than one historian has noted that, were the still-rough Lincoln to have gone north to Chicago to study law, he would surely have been swallowed -- made anonymous -- by the crowds and currents of that big town.

New Salem, his first home away from home, allowed Lincoln to, in his words, ``get hold of something that was knotty'' -- law and politics -- and wrestle with them, as he wrestled in sport with the local toughs. But by 1840, the year Lincoln left New Salem for a law firm in Springfield, the new state capital only 20 miles southeast, the little town folded -- a victim, like many speculative river towns, of the almighty railroad.

When the state of Illinois set about reconstructing New Salem in 1932, no original buildings remained. Some of Lincoln's own surveying work helped historians find original foundations for the village structures. Most were log dwellings -- not to be confused with log cabins, which settlers used only until they could erect log houses, which were chinked and tightly sealed with a mud-and-wheat straw cement daubing.

Matthew Patterson, a ranger at New Salem whose family has lived in these parts for more than 160 years, points out that the log dwellings with fireplaces on either end suggest the inhabitants were southern uplanders from Kentucky, while a fireplace in the center of the dwelling indicates a family that migrated from the north. ``They knew how to keep warm!''

The restoration is open year-round but is quiet during much of the year. During the summer season, however, New Salem buildings are staffed with volunteers in period costume who make the village come alive as they demonstrate the crafts common to a settlement in the 19th-century - spinning yarn, dipping candles, and blacksmithing.

Most are experts in the lives of the characters who made it -- and lost it -- in New Salem in the 1830s. For example, Mentor Graham ran the ``blab school,'' a one-room schoolhouse where children repeated their lessons aloud over and over again. And James Rutledge, who came from South Carolina, opened the ``town tavern,'' which in those days meant a hotel -- a place to sleep, eat, and get your horse cared for at 37 cents a day. It was Mr. Rutledge's daughter, Ann, who became Lincoln's first close female confidante, according to Jim Patton, the working blacksmith at New Salem today. Mr. Patton has an encylopedic knowledge of frontier lore and the some 4,000 period artifacts on display. New Salem, he claims, is ``the most complete and accurate log home village in the country.''

The most appealing thing I found about New Salem is its relaxed atmosphere. There are no tickets, no schedules, no hard-sell tourism - nothing to interfere with the oaks and sycamores and the sounds of roosters and other livestock that help one imagine life here in an earlier time. Practical information

Entry to New Salem State Park is free. Campsites cost $6 per night; RV hookups are available. The only place to buy anything is the snack bar and gift shop -- which has an excellent collection of new and used books on the Civil War and Lincoln.

During July and August, there's an excellent outdoor repertory theater inside the park called ``The Great American People Show.'' On alternate evenings, the repertory gives a program on the life of Lincoln through his speeches and ``situations''; a look at Lincoln through the eyes of three local poets: Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters; and a look at the legacy of Lincoln in the 20th century.

Other planned events for 1987 include Scout Conservation Day on April 25; a Quilt Show on June 20-21; a Summer Festival on July 18-19; a Storytelling Festival on Aug. 22-23; a Traditional Music and Bluegrass Festival, Sept. 19-20; a Candlelight Tour on Oct. 10; and Christmas at New Salem, Dec. 5-6.

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