Looking for Lincoln in Bloomington, Illinois

Abraham Lincoln is almost as easy to find in Bloomington, Illinois as he is in his hometown of Springfield.  Bloomington was the home of Lincoln’s great friend and political ally, Judge David Davis.  Davis was a traveling circuit lawyer turned judge when Lincoln was traveling the same circuit as a lawyer.  They were both Whigs and were instrumental in starting the Republican Party when the Whig party fell apart.  In 1860 Judge Davis acted as Lincoln’s campaign manager when he was nominated as the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency.  President Lincoln appointed Judge David Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1862.

Judge Davis arrived in Bloomington in 1836 and quickly established himself as a respected lawyer and politician.  He bought and sold land and began to make his fortune.  He built a house for his wife on a piece of land on the edge of town, then added to it as his family grew.  This would be the house that Abraham Lincoln would visit on his many trips to Bloomington.  Eventually, in 1872, seven years after Lincoln was assassinated, Davis tore down that house and built a thirty-six room mansion on the site.  The David Davis Mansion State Historic Site is available for tours; and you can obtain an Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area national park passport cancellation stamp.

An old courthouse on the square in downtown Bloomington is the home of the McLean County Museum of History.  After stamping your passport, you can find Abraham Lincoln in a corner room on the second floor.  A well-made video describes the real Abe through personal accounts from people who encountered Lincoln in Bloomington.  It’s worth a watch to get an idea of the personality of Honest Abe.  The museum also describes several of Lincoln’s cases when he was a circuit lawyer in Bloomington including a trial when Lincoln was the prosecuting attorney in a murder case.  Despite Lincoln’s five hour closing argument, he lost the case.  Abraham Lincoln also practiced family law.  He represented Mary Beard when she sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty to herself and her child.  She got her divorce and custody of her son and her ex-husband was ordered to pay for all court costs.

Honestly, Abe?

IMG_0470Visiting the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky is a confusing experience.  The longer I explore, the more questions I have.  The short movie in the visitor center indicates Abraham Lincoln only lived in Kentucky the first seven years of his life.  The ten minute film focuses on Abe’s parents, Nancy and Thomas Lincoln, and explains why Thomas and the Lincoln family moved from Sinking Spring Farm to Abraham’s boyhood home at Knob Creek two years later.  So why is there an historical park in Kentucky honoring Abraham Lincoln when he only lived in Kentucky the first seven years of his life?

Thomas and Nancy bought the 300 acre Sinking Spring Farm for $200 in December, 1808.  Baby Abe was born February 12, 1809 in a tiny, one-room log cabin. IMG_0472 A large, gaudy, pink granite and marble memorial building, eerily similar to the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., now stands, like a castle in a cornfield, near the site of the original log cabin.  I walk up the 56 steps representing the 56 years of Abraham Lincoln’s life, open the massive door, and enter the Roman, neoclassical style structure.  I feel like Alice passing through the rabbit hole.  The marble and granite structure surrounds a modest, wooden structure.  A simple, tiny, one-room log cabin is entombed inside the ornately carved memorial.  I quickly learn from the informative volunteer that the cabin is not baby Abe’s birth cabin.  It represents his birth cabin.

Living on the Kentucky frontier meant long hours for daddy Thomas plowing the stony, red clay-packed soil, harvesting just enough corn to feed the small family and few animals, and tramping through the dense woods in search of game.  Mommy Nancy spent her days caring for a toddler and an infant and preparing simple meals in a cast iron skillet over an open fireplace.  I take a walk along the Boundary Oak Trail to view the sinking spring that is the namesake of the farm.  Perhaps this fresh water spring hidden beneath American Chestnut trees is what drew the Lincoln’s to a simple, quiet, spare life on the frontier.

IMG_0474A short walk from the garish memorial is the Nancy Lincoln Inn.  I discover it is a store.  And it has always been a store.  The plaque  outside says that the store and the four small cabins nearby were built in 1928 to honor Abe’s mother, Nancy Lincoln.  Because Nancy only lived here for two years, the building was built to hold merchandise for sale, and the log cabins (in the style of baby Abe’s birth cabin)  were constructed to accommodate paying guests, I suspect that the Nancy Lincoln Inn was built with the intention of making a profit.  Nothing wrong with that.  The 1920s saw a huge growth in the tourism industry.  Why not grab the opportunity to sell lodging, candy, and cold beverages to people touring the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Park?  Cold beverage?  Great idea!  I purchase an ice cold, bottled, pure cane sugar Sarsaparillo and drive the ten miles to Knob Creek.

Soon after moving to the farm, Thomas Lincoln was involved in a lawsuit disputing ownership of the land.  In 1811, when little Abe was two years old, Thomas moved the Lincoln family ten miles to a 30 acre farm he leased on Knob Creek.  Abraham Lincoln’s earliest memories are at his boyhood home at Knob Creek.  Abe and his sister, Sarah, walked two miles to a school that did not have books or writing utensils.  Lessons were taught and learned by recitation.  It was at this school, near Knob Creek, that Abraham Lincoln developed his love for learning and appreciation for education.  Today Knob Creek still sits on the same road (although improved with asphalt and concrete) that young Abe may or may not have seen slaves being taken to market.  And yes, I tour the representative log cabin at Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek.  In 1816, Thomas Lincoln lost his lawsuit to regain Sinking Springs Farm and moved his family, including seven-year-old Abe, to Illinois.IMG_0477

Partly because I love hiking and partly because I love history, my favorite experience at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park is walking the short Big Sink Trail.  The Big Sink Trail is a .7 mile loop that meanders through the Kentucky woods of Abraham Lincoln’s early childhood.  Very few visitors to the park take advantage of the well-maintained trail and it is easy to block out the sounds of nearby cars, the smells of nearby restaurants, and the sight of overhead airplanes.  I can pretend, for half an hour, that I am a young Abe Lincoln, walking to school, hearing the sounds of birds twittering in the trees, smelling the wildflowers growing along the well-worn path, and seeing the leaves on the trees as they turn from green to red and drift slowly and gently to the ground.  As I walk through the peaceful Kentucky woods, I ponder the purpose of the park.

Abraham Lincoln is known to have said, “I cannot tell a lie”.  (Not sure if that is fact or fiction.  He was a politician!)  However, the historical park honoring his birth borders on the edge of gray.  Is this place, where Lincoln lived for only seven years, never to return to Kentucky, an accurate representation of Abe’s earliest years?  To keep Abe honest, I focus on the symbolism of the park.  Despite losing their farm, their home, and their livelihood, the Lincoln family persevered and, from these humble beginnings on the edge of the frontier, baby Abraham Lincoln eventually became the 16th president of the U.S.  Born in a modest, one-room log cabin, Lincoln died while living in the White House.  The simple cabin enshrined in an ornate memorial stands as a symbol of what all Americans can achieve with the basic core values of hard work, determination, and perseverance.

All That Jazz

It is impossible to simply walk down Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  The music emitting from the buildings and the sounds of the street require one to dance.  Or move your body in tune with the rhythms.  Or, at the very least, tap your feet.  Culture is its heart; heritage is its blood; and music is the very soul of the city.  Hidden behind Cafe du Monde is a secret little place where you can get your groove on.  No, it is not a brothel.  The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park celebrates the history of New Orleans jazz, the musicians who created the spontaneous improvisational music movement, and the cultural heritage of a lively, yet laid-back city.

DSCN6015Experiencing the park is an immersion into New Orleans jazz.  The visitor center on Peters St. has a small gift shop; but few exhibits.  The park offers several opportunities to actively learn about the musical development of the city.  First, I sign up for a one-hour guided walking tour.  Walking tours are offered twice a week and are free.  The tour begins at the visitor center with a brief introduction; then continues with a stroll around Cafe du Monde, through the French Market, and ending at the Old Mint.  The guide stops several times to explain the influence of various cultures on the development of New Orleans jazz.DSCN6022

France founded Louisiana as a colony in 1699 and New Orleans was settled in the early 1700s.  In 1803, after a brief episode where Spain ruled (1763 to 1800), the U.S. bought the colony.  After the Louisiana Purchase, immigrants poured in from the southern states bringing with them their African slaves.  New Orleans quickly became a world port as immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Ireland also settled in Louisiana.  New Orleans’ proximity to the Caribbean Islands of the West Indies, its strongly French background, and a tolerance towards ethnic differences, created a “perfect storm” for an emergence of a unique fusion of diversity.  This blending of European, African, and Caribbean cultures can be seen in New Orleans cuisine, spiritual beliefs, architecture, language, and especially, music.

Concert venues abound in NOLA.  Preservation Hall and Tipitinas are great places for evening shows.  However, two or three afternoons a week, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park hosts a free concert in the Old Mint.  The guided walking tour ends at the Old Mint as the concert begins.  I enjoy the interactive concert; sometimes singing along with the crowd to a familiar quick-tempo tune, other times closing my eyes and simply listening as the piano sounds and the pianist’s soft lyrical voice washes over me.  The semi-secret concert is a wonderful, pleasurable, intimate surprise.  Next time you are in New Orleans, check out the Jazz Historical Park’s website for the concert schedule.

DSCN6013The National Historical Park also provides a walking map of the French Quarter.  The self-guided tour includes cell phone stops where I use my own cell phone to call a posted number and listen to a recorded message describing the site.  The entire tour takes about three hours, depending on how long is spent at each site.  The route passes through Armstrong Park and includes a very good description of Congo Square and the influence of African slave traditions on the early developing music scene.  From the mid-1700s, Sunday was a “free day” for slaves in New Orleans.  Hundreds of slaves would gather in Congo Square to trade, fellowship, and dance.  The Sunday celebrations ended with the start of the Civil War but the sounds, beats, and rhythms of Congo Square still linger in the musical heritage of New Orleans.

The distinctively improvisational style of NOLA jazz is best experienced in the French Quarter.  Any time of day or night, street musicians play a variety of instruments entertaining those who stop to listen.  As I’m walking the self-guided tour route, I stumble across a large group of musicians playing everything from a string bass to a ding bell that was removed from a hotel desk.  One musician begins a song, and slowly the others join in the rhythms.  The amazing thing is that between songs, they introduce themselves to each other.  I am lucky to witness an improvisational gathering of fantastically talented musicians that sound like they have been playing together for years.  Amazing!  I linger for at least an hour, enjoying the music so much that I forgot to take video and almost forgot to take pictures.DSCN6046

DSCN6031A Jazz Walk of Fame is located a short ferry ride across the Mississippi River.  Sixteen numbered lampposts line the Algiers Ferry Landing, each representing a musician who influenced New Orleans jazz.  Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, Danny Barker, Jelly Roll Morton, Joseph “King” Oliver and many other musical greats all called New Orleans home.  The Jazz Walk of Fame is a cell phone narrated walk and I am very disappointed that most of the placards indicating the musician and their number are missing.  I listen to the few narrations that are represented, take a few pictures, and ride the ferry back across the river.

Experiencing the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park takes about a day and a half and requires a lot of walking.  Did I say walking?  I meant dancing…