TBT: Here I have lived a quarter of a century

Lincoln Home in Springfield draped in mourning, 1865
The crowd gathered in the morning chill on 8th Street in Springfield eagerly awaited the appearance of their triumphant friend and neighbor. Three months earlier, the man they had so often greeted in passing on this dusty street had been elected President of the United States. On that exciting night, Abraham Lincoln had rushed the five blocks from the state capitol building and burst through the door of his family’s house at the corner of 8th and Jackson, shouting to his wife, “Mary! We are elected!”

Since then the house, as well as his downtown Springfield law office and the office space he had borrowed across the street at the state capitol had buzzed with activity. But now the time had come for the President-elect to depart for the nation’s capital, with “a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.”

At last he emerged from the house, carrying his baggage (marked with a tag labeled “A. Lincoln, Executive Mansion, Washington, DC”) and accompanied by his oldest son, Robert, and neighbor Jameson Jenkins. He acknowledged the well-wishers and boarded the carriage that would take him to the Great Western Railroad Depot at 10th and Monroe Streets, just a short distance away. There he would make his farewell remarks to around 1000 of his Springfield neighbors a few minutes before 8 a.m. on that chilly day, February 11, 1861.

“To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything,” he said. “Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried.” He asked for God’s blessing on his endeavor, and wished the same on the crowd, and then, “I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

He waved to the crowd, then turned and stepped onto the train. This moment, which sadly marked the end of Abraham Lincoln’s years as a Springfield resident, came 17 years after the Lincoln family moved into the house at 8th and Jackson.

It was 175 years ago today, May 2, 1844, that Abraham Lincoln signed the deed to the property that would become the only home he ever owned. He paid $1500 for the family’s new home. In honor of the anniversary, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is hosting a special exhibit of artifacts, including the original deed to the home, the famous “A. Lincoln” nameplate from the front door, and a key to the house.

In all, Lincoln had been a Springfield resident for just under a quarter of a century, having moved to the new state capital city with all of his belongings jammed into two saddlebags in 1837. He and Mary Todd were married in 1842 by Rev. Charles Dresser, who would later sell them their first and only house. The couple and their young son Robert soon moved into the home where they would reside until leaving for the White House.

The Lincoln Home and part of the neighborhood, 1967.
Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives.
When the Lincolns moved in, the house was a small, one-story structure with white walls and green shutters. Edward Lincoln, the family’s second son, was born here in 1846, followed by his brothers William (1850) and Thomas (1853). Eddie died in the home in 1850. As the three surviving boys grew, the Lincolns built on to the house, adding an extra room in 1846 and a second story in 1856. They eventually expanded the house to 12 rooms in all. It was in the home’s front parlor that Abraham Lincoln received the delegation from the Republican National Committee informing him that he had been nominated for the Presidency.

Lincoln had been friendly with his neighbors, who came from many different walks of life in the Springfield community. Henson Lyon farmed on land east of Springfield, while another neighbor Harriet Dean was a teacher who conducted lessons for pupils in her home. Other neighbors included Illinois state geologist Amos Worthen, and Jared Irwin, a bricklayer who helped build the state capitol building at 6thand Adams. Jesse Dubois served with Lincoln in the legislature and Lincoln later supported his successful bid for state Auditor, which led to his moving into a home just a few doors south on 8thStreet.

At least 20 residents of the neighborhood served in the Union Army while their neighbor was Commander in Chief, spanning the ranks from Major General Mason Brayman to Private Josiah Kent of the 133rdIllinois Volunteer Infantry.

Another neighbor, George Shutt, was a prominent Democrat who campaigned for Stephen Douglas in the 1860 Presidential election. Julia Sprigg was friends with Mary Lincoln and even helped watch the young Lincoln boys. She remained in contact with Mrs. Lincoln after tragedy struck the family.

While serving in Washington, Lincoln rented out the Springfield house, and the family sold most of its furniture. They even left behind the family dog Fido. The first renter, Great Western Railroad President Lucian Tilton indulged curiosity seekers who sought to see the President’s home. It was the start of a troublesome trend.

After the President was assassinated, the house was draped in mourning and it became a focal point for thousands who came to express their grief. Mary Lincoln came back to Illinois, but lived in Chicago instead of Springfield. Late in life she would return to the capital city, but lived with her sister Elizabeth, never moving back into the house at 8thand Jackson.

Meanwhile, renters continued to live in the house. They were well aware of its history, and sought to profit, charging visitors to see the home of the Great Emancipator, while allowing the house to fall into disrepair. Robert Lincoln, by now the sole surviving son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, was furious at the disrespect shown to his father and his family, and following Mary’s death, he donated the house to the state of Illinois in 1887. To avoid the problems that had sprung up in the 20-plus years since his father’s death, Robert’s donation terms specifically required that the house be well maintained and that it become a historic site to honor his father. He also made sure that it would always be free of charge for any who chose to visit.

The state of Illinois managed Lincoln’s Home as a State Historic Site for more than 80 years. The federal government began to get involved in 1960, designating the home and Lincoln’s Tomb as National Historic Landmarks, and listing them on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The final step in this transformation occurred on August 18, 1971, when President Richard Nixon came to Springfield to accept the site into the National Park Service system and to formally dedicate Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the first National Park in Illinois.

Nixon signed the legislation creating the park at the desk on which Lincoln wrote his First Inaugural address, in Representatives Hall of the Old State Capitol, the room in which Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech and where, seven years later, his Springfield funeral was held.

“Lincoln also had a very profound sense of destiny about the United States of America – what it was, what it meant to its own people, and what it meant to the world,” Nixon said at the bill signing. “We all remember what he said: that the United States of America was man’s last, best hope on earth. But listen to when he said it. America then was far from being the strongest nation in the world; it was far from being the richest nation in the world; and it was sorely stricken and divided by a civil war, the most brutal war, perhaps, of the 19thcentury in terms of the casualties that were suffered. Yet Lincoln, this man who could see beyond war and beyond strife and beyond weakness to the periods ahead, stood tall and said America is man’s last, best hope on earth.”

President Gerald Ford came to Springfield in 1976 to dedicate the cornerstone of the park’s visitors’ center, which was formally opened on the nation’s bicentennial birthday, July 4, 1976.

Walt Disney visits the Lincoln Home, 1964. Photo from
the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
The National Park Service has worked to restore the entire Lincoln neighborhood to its 1860 appearance, researching the families who lived in each of the 14 houses of the neighborhood, which extends for a block in each direction from the Lincolns’ home. A major renovation in 1987 restored the interior of the Lincoln Home as closely as possible to its condition when the Lincolns lived there, including paint colors as well as floor and window coverings. Some original wallpaper was found in the home, but much had to be recreated through painstaking research of photographs and contemporary drawings.

Two of the other houses are open for visitors: the Dean House, across 8th Street from the Lincolns, hosts an exhibit entitled “What a pleasant home Mr. Lincoln has,” focusing on the daily life of the Lincolns in Springfield; and the Arnold House directly across Jackson Street which is home to an exhibit called “If These Walls Could Talk,” which describes the historic preservation efforts in the neighborhood. The site hosts historic lectures and living history re-enactments throughout the year. During the Christmas season the neighborhood is the site of Holiday Walks which offer education about how the Christmas holidays were celebrated when the Lincolns lived in the neighborhood.

And in keeping with that long ago promise to Robert Lincoln, the site remains free to all who visit.