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.

The Accidental President

In January 1945 Harry S. Truman was sworn in as Vice President to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Three months later, on April 12, 1945, upon Roosevelt’s death, Harry Truman was suddenly the 33rd president of the United States.  Truman, a high school graduate without a college degree, once commented that he became president by “accident.”

DSC00066A visit to the Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Independence, Missouri is like stepping into a time capsule and returning to the 1950s.  Downtown Independence is like a modern-day Mayberry. (Referring to the old Andy Griffith Show.)  The visitor center, on the corner of Main and Truman, is located in a renovated 1928 Fire Station.  It is here that tickets can be purchased to tour Harry and Bess Truman’s home, the “Summer White House”; a short movie can be viewed catching a glimpse into the Truman’s life in Independence; souvenirs can be purchased; and walking maps can be obtained highlighting sights around Harry’s neighborhood.  Harry Truman was known for his walks about town and it is fun to follow in his footsteps; especially to Clinton’s, a drugstore where Harry worked his very first job.  Today Clinton’s is an ice cream parlor and a yummy afternoon treat.

DSC00062The ranger-guided Truman home tour is not so much a tour of a beautiful house than it is a tour of a family’s home.   Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace and her brothers and mother moved into Bess’s grandparents house at 219 N. Delaware Ave in 1904 shortly after her father died.  Harry S Truman married his childhood crush, Bess, on June 28, 1919 and moved into the Wallace family home.  Harry and Bess had one child, a daughter named Margaret, born February 17, 1924.  The close-knit family continued to live in the house on N. Delaware, returning often during Truman’s presidency.  In fact, Bess and Margaret stayed in Independence more than the White House.  (Bess never did like Washington D.C.)  Upon returning to Independence in 1953 after his second term as president, Harry goes right back to living a “common” man lifestyle.

The park ranger tells stories about the Truman family as he points out various items that reflect Harry’s surprisingly humble lifestyle.  There is only one indication in the entire house that Harry S Truman was ever President of the United States:  dishes in the cupboard with the White House seal.  The poor quality wallpaper in the kitchen reflects Harry’s frugal nature.  Harry and Bess would often sit on the back porch to read the paper and sip coffee and tea.  The Secret Service planted bushes and placed a fence around the property to protect the former president from the curious public.  Harry never did give up his daily walk around town.

Harry Truman lived in the house on 219 N. Delaware for over 50 years until his death in 1972.  He never forgot his roots nor his strong midwest family values.  “I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from and where I was going to.” – Harry S Truman


Ulysses is a Funny Name

What do I know about Ulysses S. Grant?  Ulysses S. Grant was the General who led the Union to victory in the American Civil War.  Ulysses S. Grant was a president of the United States.  And Ulysses S. Grant was buried in Grant’s Tomb.  (Although I discovered via Google that no one is buried in Grant’s tomb.)  And Ulysses is a funny name.  After visiting the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri, I now know much, much more about Ulysses S. Grant.

DSC00001Ulysses was stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis when Fred Dent, a classmate from Ulysses’ West Point days, wrote him a letter inviting Ulysses to his family’s home near St. Louis.  Ulysses accepted the invitation and was a frequent guest at White Haven, the Dent family farm.  On one of his many visits he met Fred’s sister, Julia, and quickly became smitten.  Ulysses asked Julia to wear his class ring as a promise to eventually marry.  He was gently rebuffed because Julia was afraid her father would not approve.  Ulysses believed slavery was morally wrong and Julia’s father, “Colonel” Frederick Dent, was a slave owner from Missouri.  However, Julia could not resist the charms of Ulysses and despite different backgrounds the couple married in 1848.

DSC00007In 1854, Grant resigned from the Army and moved his family to White Haven where he farmed the land until he was recommissioned into the Army during the Civil War.  Ulysses purchased White Haven from Julia’s father in the 1860s.  Although the couple lived in many, many places during Grant’s military career, and they lived in the White House during Grant’s two terms as president, Ulysses and Julia continued to have an intense emotional attachment to White Haven.

DSC00006A visit to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes a short film in the visitor center that provides an introduction to Ulysses, a tour of White Haven that includes a “magic” mirror demonstrating the strained relationship between Julia’s husband and father, a quarter-mile loop path leading to outbuildings such as the summer kitchen and chicken house, and a museum depicting the many love letters that Ulysses wrote to Julia during their wartime separations.  What do I know about Ulysses S. Grant?  Ulysses S. Grant was a solid man of conviction and principal.  Ulysses S. Grant was a quiet man of passion and romance.  Ulysses S. Grant was a family man of discipline and love.  And Ulysses is a funny name.




Palo Alto Battlefield

DSCN6672Way down south, directly on the pointed tip of a very large state, is Brownsville, Texas.  A Spanish speaking border town, Brownsville has a rich Mexican heritage with tons of excellent TexMex restaurants, a world-class zoo, and the only National Park Site dedicated to the Mexican American War.  Just six miles from the Mexico border, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park preserves the site of the first major battle of the U.S. Mexican War.

Mexico never accepted the loss of Texas resulting from the Texas Revolution.  When Texas became the 28th state of the United States, Mexico challenged the annexation, particularly the boundary of the new state.  U.S. President Polk campaigned on a promise to extend the United States to the Pacific Ocean.  Polk saw Mexico’s balk at Texas’ annexation as an opportunity to fulfill his promises.  He sent General Zachary Taylor and 4,000 soldiers to Texas.  Many Americans challenged Texas’ claim of the Rio Grande and President Polk risked criticism and loss of favor with the American voting public. Polk ordered Taylor to stop at the Rio Grande River where the American troops faced Mexican General Mariano Arista’s Army of the North from across the disputed boundary.  Polk’s plan was to provoke the Mexican army into crossing the river which could be portrayed as an invasion into America.  Polk’s plan was successful.  Arista, believing that the U.S. troops were on Mexican soil, marched his troops across the Rio Grande.  Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed and Polk seized the opportunity to push for war.  On May 13, 1846, Congress voted to declare war on Mexico and the United States and Mexico entered a two-year conflict that ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe  Hidalgo.  The treaty forced Mexico to accept the Rio Grande River as their boundary with the U.S.  Mexico also had to sell the vast land west of Texas.  Polk fulfilled his dream of expanding the borders of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Today the Mexican/American War can be explored at Palo Alto.  A film in the Visitor Center explains the importance of Polk’s strategies as well as the resulting conflict.  Excellent maps portray the land acquired from Mexico.  A short walk along a paved path leads to the Palo Alto Battlefield where lines of American and Mexican flags wave in the wind revealing the positions of both troops.DSCN6673

Experiencing Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site takes only about two hours.  However, the Battlefield represents two years of conflict between two very different cultures.  The conclusion of the conflict resulted in a much larger, much expanded United States and added to the various cultures represented in a diverse America.


Texas White House

IMG_0555Lyndon B. Johnson was a President that enjoyed power and control and would often use both to persuade others to see things his way.  LBJ was most comfortable and felt more in control of his surroundings at his home in Johnson City, Texas.  Perhaps that is why he spent 25% of his presidency at the “Texas White House” where “all the world is welcome”.  Visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park gives an honest insight into the life, character, and personality of the 36th President of the United States.

Visiting the LBJ Ranch District portion of the National Historical Park is a bit confusing.  The tour begins at the Visitor Center of the LBJ State Park and Historic Site in Stonewall, Texas, 14 miles from the Johnson City District in Johnson City, Texas.  The Texas State Park operates this visitor center and it is here where we receive our free tickets to experience the self-guided driving tour of the Ranch.  My daughter and I view the 30 minute film that gives a unique introduction to the Ranch.  It is an old TV program of an interview with President Johnson as he escorts the interviewer on a tour of his ranch and home.  After watching the film, we are ready for our own tour following in the footsteps of LBJ.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a man “larger than life” and his ranch along the Pedernales River in the rolling hill country of Texas was a perfect home for his personality.  Johnson had a strong sense of family and deep roots planted in this parcel of land where he was born.  He bought the land and lived here with his wife, Lady Bird, and their two daughters.  It is here, in Texas, where he was most comfortable and would return time and time again during his presidency.  He would invite cabinet members and dignitaries to his ranch where they would stay in assorted houses, such as the President’s grandparents first home, on the property.  Johnson would take his guests on tours of the ranch in one of his many convertibles, top down, cowboy hat resting proudly atop his head.  LBJ would conduct political business, share anecdotes, and even use scare tactics to “convince” his guest to see things his way.IMG_0573

President and Mrs. Johnson donated the LBJ Ranch to the National Park Service in 1972, stipulating that the ranch remain a working ranch and not a “relic to the past”.  Johnson died in 1973, but Lady Bird lived here until her death in 2006.  During her lifetime, tours were conducted by shuttle bus.  The current self-driving auto tour passes the one-room Junction School where young Lyndon learned to read.  It is in this building that President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The tour continues past the LBJ Birthplace, rebuilt by the President in 1964 to be used as a guest house.  After stopping briefly at the Johnson Family Cemetery were President Lyndon Baines Johnson was buried on January 25, 1973, Madeleine and I take the one-way road passing pasture land, barns, and the ranch foreman’s house.  The leisurely drive ends at an airplane hangar and the Texas White House.

IMG_0574The highlight of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is the actual home of President and Lady Bird Johnson.  Tours are guided and $3 tickets are purchased at the visitor center/hangar.  This visitor center is operated by the National Park Service and tours are conducted by park rangers.  Our park ranger guide was excellent.  Relaxed, young, and fun, he told lots of stories and anecdotes about LBJ as well as pointed out particular points of interest.  Johnson would always sit in the most comfortable chair in the room and there are photographs proving this fact.  Televisions and telephones are everywhere.  Johnson always had an eye on the news.  There is a telephone mounted at the head of the dinner table where LBJ sat as well as the kitchen table, bathrooms, and LBJ’s bed.  LBJ and Lady Bird had separate rooms because one morning Lady Bird woke up to discover President Johnson was conducting a meeting in their bedroom!  Lady Bird’s room is large, airy, and feminine.  My favorite part of the tour was entering her bathroom and viewing her wardrobe through the plexiglass “doors” of her closet.

IMG_0570Experiencing both parts of the LBJ National Historical Park takes a full day.  Other activities include a living history farm with a one mile nature trail to explore, exhibits at all three visitor centers to study, gift shops at all three visitor centers to peruse, and of course, National Park Passport cancellations to obtain.  Although my 21-year-old daughter, Madeleine, would have preferred a very long day of urban shopping, we enjoyed our day together stepping back in time and learning a little about a President of the United States who had an ego as large as Texas, a First Lady who was as gracious as she was smart, and the Texas White House they both called home.




LBJ as a Boy

IMG_0565The LBJ National Historical Park includes two separate sites approximately 14 miles apart:  the Johnson City District and the LBJ Ranch District.  There are Visitor Centers at each location.  The Johnson City District, located appropriately in Johnson City, Texas, consists of LBJ’s Boyhood Home and the Johnson Settlement.  The Visitor Center offers two films in separate theaters, one about Lyndon Baines Johnson and the other about Lady Bird Johnson.  Both films are excellent and portray the couple honestly.  After viewing each film, my dislike for LBJ strengthened and my respect for Lady Bird deepened.

LBJ’s Boyhood Home, where Johnson lived from age 5 to age 26, is a short block from the Visitor Center.  The small, modest 1901 home is accessible by guided tour.  My daughter, Madeleine, and I wait, IMG_0576resting comfortably on a porch swing, a brief ten minutes for a park ranger.  The ranger begins the tour on the porch describing the early life of LBJ.  An almost five-year-old Lyndon moves into this house in September 1913 with his parents and two sisters.  Two more children were born here.  Young Lyndon’s family life in Johnson City strongly influenced Johnson’s political career.  Lyndon’s father was a state legislator and his mother was one of the few college-educated women in the area.  Education was Rebekah Baines Johnson’s passion.  She taught elocution and debating to her children as well as the neighborhood children.  Rebekah encouraged Lyndon to form his own opinions and carefully develop his powers of persuasion.  LBJ’s Boyhood Home has been restored to its appearance during the mid-1920s, when a teenage Lyndon lived in this three bedroom home in the center of town.  An interesting note is that the Johnson family had a tub room, complete with running water.

IMG_0577The second component of the Johnson City District is the Johnson Settlement.  A ten-minute walk from the Visitor Center, the Johnson Settlement is a walking history tour of the settlement of Johnson City.  The first stop is the Exhibit Center which tells the story of the cowboys that settled the area.  This building is air-conditioned and a welcome respite from the Texas in July temperature!    Madeleine and I take our time viewing the exhibits that describe life on the Texas frontier.  Continuing the walking loop we encounter the dog-trot style cabin where LBJ’s grandfather, Samuel Ealy Johnson, brought his bride in 1867.  This cabin served as both the home and the headquarters for the cattle drive business that Sam and his brother Tom began as a partnership that gained early success and later failure as the railroads developed.  Other buildings on the walking tour consists of the Bruckner Barn constructed in 1884, the James Polk Johnson Barn, constructed in 1875 by the nephew of LBJ’s grandfather, and a windmill, water tank and cooler house also built by James Polk Johnson.  Our final stop is the Withers & Spaulding General Store; the general store from LBJ’s childhood that now serves as the Chamber of Commerce visitor center.


Pea Ridge

IMG_0465In March, 1862, in the mountains north of Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Battle of Pea Ridge was fought to keep Missouri in the Union. The two day battle was as much a battle of egos as a battle for control; therefore many errors occurred that caused the tide to turn suddenly for both sides.  Touring the Pea Ridge National Military Park near Bentonville, Arkansas is a terrific way to understand the Civil War battle.  After viewing the two light-up map exhibits that explain the maneuvers of the armies; and after viewing the informative film in the visitor center, I grab a map and begin the ten stop, driving loop tour.

Although there are a few hiking trails surrounding the driving loop, hiking is not necessary to tour Pea Ridge National Military Park.  The one-way road has well marked parking areas, each IMG_0461with plaques detailing the events of the battle.  Stop 7 is the one hiking exception.  A very short walk leads to the East Overlook with beautiful views of the battlefield, the surrounding Boston Mountains, and several placards explaining Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn’s not very well thought out plan to sneak behind Brigadier General Samuel Curtis’s Union troops for a surprise attack.  The Union army was entrenched on the bluffs above Little Sugar Creek expecting a frontal assault by the Confederates.  Van Dorn force marched his 16,000-man army for three difficult days.  His wagons containing extra artillery, food, and gear could not make the trek and had to be left behind.  The Confederates, arriving several hours after dawn on March 7, were successful in pushing the Union army back until the Confederates took over both Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph and Huntsville roads.  However, Van Dorn’s troops were exhausted, hungry, and cold…and running low on ammunition.

IMG_0464Elkhorn Tavern stands at Stop 8 on the driving loop.  Although the Tavern is not open for tours, several placards in the nearby surrounding area explain the events of March 8.  Curtis and his Union troops return to the tavern area and counter-attacked the weary Confederates.  After a two-hour artillery barrage, Van Dorn realized his error of leaving behind the extra supplies.  With little ammunition, low spirits, and an exhausted army, Van Dorn ordered his troops to withdraw and the battle of Pea Ridge ended with a Union victory.  Missouri remained in the Union.

After completing the driving tour of the Battle of Pea Ridge, I drive the half mile to explore the Union trenches at Little Sugar Creek.  Although eroded, the trenches still exist on the bluff aboveIMG_0455 Little Sugar Creek.  I grab my hiking sticks and trek the moderate-level trail that climbs a steep bluff before leveling out into a short, loop trail.  The hike on top of the bluff is easy with a well-maintained trail; however there are no signs indicating the location of the trenches.  Very few people come to this area of the park, and, although  I have no idea what I am supposed to be looking at, I enjoy the peaceful, solitary hiking experience.