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Thursday, June 26, 2014 12:01 am

The hearth eternal

Longtime Vachel Lindsay Home administrator retiring

She said to us who came with wondering eyes–
“This is a magic fire, a magic room.”

– From “The Hearth Eternal,” a poem by Lindsay published in 1914 in Congo and Other Poems.



Jennie Battles stands in one of the rooms of the Vachel Lindsay State Historic Site by the typewriter poet Vachel Lindsay once used.
PHOTO BY ANITA STIENSTRA

 

For decades Jennie Battles’ name has been synonymous with poet Vachel Lindsay, who is famous enough his poems are in textbooks alongside greats such as Robert Frost.

A former English teacher, Battles has been the perfect site administrator for the Vachel Lindsay State Historic Site, where Lindsay was born in 1879 and died in 1931, and which is located directly south of the governor’s mansion. With Battles’ love of literature and history, flair for throwing grand gatherings with delicious food and beautiful floral arrangements, and proficiency for storytelling, she will be difficult to replace when she retires this month from the home.

Battles stumbled into the gig. She went to work for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in 1986. Four years later, the 1840s home was acquired by the state from the Vachel Lindsay House Fund and Vachel Lindsay Association. As volunteer coordinator and interpreter at the Capitol Complex, Battles became heavily involved during phase two of the Vachel Lindsay remodel in 1999. After the remodel, when the home was opened to the public in 2001, she was asked to manage the site.

Explains Justin Blandford, superintendent of state historic sites in Springfield, “There was not a model she could follow.” But in the same way Jennie helped with a 2009 bicentennial Lincoln Tomb event when she “dived right in,” as Blandford says, she enthusiastically and competently fulfilled whatever IHPA wanted done.

According to Blandford, success and progress for the home came from Jennie’s “passion and awareness of diverse layers of history at our sites,” “a heart for relationships,” “her willingness to try new approaches and give 110 percent” and a “positive attitude.” She also excelled at making sure the Lindsay family stories were still discussed at the site.

Battles is a walking encyclopedia of facts on Vachel, his family and the history of the home, where Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister once lived. Battles’ relationship with Vachel’s sister Olive’s children and other family members only adds to the stories she can tell folks from around the world who visit. The home is open to the public for guided tours Tuesday through Saturday.

Battles has breathed life into the 11-room home. “She has brought in so many amazing people and programs throughout her tenure,” states longtime volunteer and Vachel Lindsay Association board member Deb Huffman.

VLA president Lisa Higgs adds, “Visitors to the home and to the many programs initiated during Ms. Battles’ tenure – from the year-round Poets in the Parlor series to summer’s Lincoln Ice Cream Socials – have benefited from the knowledge and passion that Jennie has for Lindsay and his family.

Other programs conceived by Battles, such as “Let Us Be Bold With Our Songs,” based on a Lindsay quote, have filled the home with musical performances. Battles and Blandford seemed to work like a well-seasoned songwriting team to make the historic site a landmark of intellectual stimulation. Another program, “Artists in Residence,” Blandford’s brainchild event series in which  a guest artist’s work is displayed, was joyfully adopted and implemented by Battles.

Since 2001, Battles has been a tireless woman-of-all-trades at the home – hosting, washing dishes, giving tours, gardening and more, with the help of a loyal but sparse number of volunteers.

For her outstanding contribution to the home and Lindsay legacy, Battles was awarded recently with the Lindsay Person of Letters Award. Given biannually by the Vachel Lindsay Association, Battles is the only person to receive the award besides Governor Jim Edgar.

The public is invited to a reception for Battles Saturday, June 28, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Vachel Lindsay State Historic Site, 603 S. Sixth St.

Higgs remembers, “One of my first introductions to Jennie and the home came when I brought a group of friends to see Aasne Vigesaa perform The Yellow Wallpaper one evening. Simply stunning and unforgettable. Much like Jennie herself.”

Contact Anita Stienstra at astienstra@illinoistimes.com.

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