New Salem Christmas
December 1989 – I read in the newspapers recently where “Christmas at New Salem” weekend will be done away with. Seems that research has proven that the inhabitants of that short-lived village where Lincoln grew to manhood were not the beliefs that would cause them to consider Christmas as any kind of holiday. So in keeping with the pure authenticity of the village, Christmas cannot be part of any special event.
I was born near where Lincoln walked and later grew up by the Lincoln Highway, hunted squirrels where he debated free silver with Stephen A. Douglas. I made my first trip to New Salem riding in the back seat of an Essex automobile, packed tight among other kids from Hickory School.
I was raised in a hollow near that school, and as the Christmas season nears, I think and remember those first Christmases there in that house in the hollow by Schaad Creek, protected and fed by the earth, the wooded hills, and a family that included Mom and Dad, sisters and brothers, and Grandpa. In later life, I would realize that we were very poor during those times, but I never remember ever feeling that way during my early years growing up in that place. The gifts we received were simple and oft times things we needed. The real joy remembered was the spirit of things at school and church. I am still drawn to that hollow as this season nears. I go out there, smell the earthen dampness, sit on the hillside, then cut a few boughs of evergreen, the prickly limbs of the aromatic red cedar trees, and bring them to where I live now. The fragrance is an instant reminder of the cedar trees Dad would find along his trap line and bring in for us to have in the front room. The essence of red cedar is Christmas to me and kindles memories of early Christmases in that hollow.
I have attended many of the New Salem Christmases and always came away feeling that it must have been a special place in Lincoln’s memory just as that place in the hollow is for me.
I have an old suit of clothes authentic to the 1850s. It is of black woolen material and includes trousers with buttons for suspenders, a vest and a great coat with pockets in the tails. It is of generous cut, cut that way for riding horseback. A black hat makes the outfit complete. It is a very warm suit of clothes, and I always wore this to the New Salem Christmas. I was not the only one. My friend Dr. Glen, a pill roller, wore a similar outfit. And a tall man, complete with a mole on his cheek, would arrive looking very much like a returning Lincoln, except for his wingtip shoes.
A few years back, I went to a New Salem Christmas on a Sunday morning, after a light snow had fallen. I was feeling melancholy and not wanting to spend the Sunday alone. I put on my old-time suit and drove over. I did not drive up the hill, knowing the upper lot would be full. I parked below by the bridge where the cedar trees grow.
The day had not warmed much. The sky was winter gray. I put on a scarf and buttoned up my vest and heavy coat, then put on my top hat. In the blue winter mist beside the stream, I looked around me. The soft, clean snow – the kind that hushes everything and makes all motion silent – the contrast of soft shadows and trees and the scent of cedar. There was the bronze statue of Lincoln astride a horse, reading a book. Snow lay on his shoulders, on his head and on his open book, but you still felt that this was his place.
I turned from the scene and made my way up the draw towards the south border of the village. Snow dusted down on me as I walked through the hazelbrush and sumac. I saw footprints in the snow and looked around to try to see who was making them. I could barely make out through the thicket a figure dressed in black, much like me, only taller. I thought it might be Dr. Glen or maybe the Lincoln look-alike. I stopped for a closer look at the tracks in the snow. They were boot prints, heavy of heel and wide at the foot, with the toe turned up sharply. It was an unusual print. When I looked up, no figure was visible. I went on up the hill a few steps and soon heard the music coming from Rutledge Tavern and the thumping sound of a jig being danced on the puncheon floor. The smell of woodsmoke caught my senses. We burned wood in our trusty Heatrola there in Hickory Hollow. Melancholy was with me again, but sat comfortable and kept its distance. I leaned on the rail fence and looked across to the next ridge where young Ann Rutledge was laid to rest the first time. Lincoln loved Ann and lost her, so he knew sadness here.
I walked around the lot fence to see a cheery crowd enjoying the snow and each other. Women were dressed in old-time frocks and warm woolen shawls. Children were in homespun with cheeks so pink from the chill air.
I saw friends of mine and together we entered the cozy room by the fireplace. The cabin kept filling with others as music and warmth and Christmas singing invited them in till my friends and I were packed close together. I felt the warmth of those around us and thought to myself that this is what it’s like to feel good and whole and wished it could go on forever.
But nothing is forever. The fiddle stopped and the singers left. The mood changed and I walked on towards the Onstot cabin where I met Dr. Glen rolling his pills. We exchanged pleasantries, and then I’d asked if he’d walked up the hillside a little earlier. He gave me a puzzled look, and then said he’d gotten there early and parked in the upper lot. I asked how many Lincolns he’d seen there that day.
“Gee! I don’t know,” he answered. “There’s the tall one that always comes. Then there’s you, but you’re too short to be a Lincoln. Then there’s another one around that looks more like Lincoln than any of them. Never got a chance to get close to him but he looks right.” So I left him and went about my way.
As I neared the cabin of Samuel Hill and heard the muted sounds of a dulcimer, I saw one Lincoln up ahead in the crowd. This was surely the one in wingtip shoes. But another stood off alone. Tall, dressed in black, a face without expression. I walked toward him, but he was lost around the corner of an outbuilding before I could get close.
When I came to where he had been standing, I saw only boot prints in the snow, the same heavy-heeled prints I had seen earlier on the hillside. Here was a shy Lincoln who wasn’t very social on this day, yet he seemed so much to belong here.
Darkness was coming early to this wooded village, just as it did to our house there in the hollow. By four o’clock, it was time to light up the lamps and build up the fires. Now I could see the candle lanterns in the cabin windows and the warm, golden glow of the fires filling the rooms. The crowd was thinning as I made my way back to the other end of the village where I had entered. There, ahead of me, at the very limit of my vision, in the haze lying over the snow, I could make out the dark figure of a Lincoln moving ahead of me. It was too tall to be Dr. Glen. But who was it? I did not try to get closer, but just followed along. He entered the thicket of hazelbush and I lost all sight of him. I listened for him moving through the brush and heard nothing except my own breathing. I followed his path. As I entered the brush, a cedar bough brushed by my face. I continued on down to the clearing where I had parked. No one was now visible. I was alone again.
Lincoln may not have celebrated Christmas at New Salem during his six years there. Maybe the families of Peter Lukins, the Josh Millers, the Bob Johnsons or the Martin Waddells did not celebrate Christmas while at New Salem. But many of those families lived on into later years and enjoyed Christmas as it became a more universal and popular holiday. A time of family and friends and the recalling of old times past, times important in shaping their lives. Lincoln would recall his New Salem days, the warmth and friendships there as a young man, memories and feelings he carried with him to the prairies riding circuit, and in Springfield where he raised a family, and on to the presidency in Washington.
I recall our family there in Hickory Hollow. We are all gone from there now, for more than 50 years. But I go back for a short nostalgic and melancholy visit every now and then, just as I believe Lincoln returns to New Salem. I do not doubt his presence there – especially at Christmastime.
Roy L. French of Virginia, Illinois, 83, has contributed a Christmas memoir to Illinois Times every year for more than 30 years. He wrote this piece in December 1989. He may be contacted at P.O. Box 133, Virginia, IL, 62691.