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Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 04:06 pm

On Lincoln's trail

Next year Abe turns 200 and in his three home states the party starts now

The Lincoln Memorial in Hodgenville, Ky.

He was born in Kentucky, grew to manhood in Indiana, and became the nation’s leader as an Illinoisan.

Now, all three states that lay claim to Abraham Lincoln’s life story are preparing events, commemorations, and exhibits to honor his legacy during a national two-year bicentennial celebration. The celebrations officially begin next week and continue through Feb. 12, 2010.

Hundreds of events are in the works, including a kickoff in Kentucky, a Mother’s Day celebration in Indiana, and everything from a reenactment of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates to an 1860 Period Ball at the Executive Mansion in Illinois, with countless others to come.

For organizers of these events, competition between homesteads doesn’t even play a role. Instead, they emphasize that the goal of the bicentennial celebration is to retrace Lincoln’s life from beginning to end on a grand scale in ways that have never before been imagined.

Sandy Brue, a key planner with the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, in Hodgenville, Ky., puts it simply: “Not in any way are we trying to compete with Indiana or Illinois, but the bicentennial is instead giving all three states a chance to work together to tell Lincoln’s whole story.”

It seems fitting that the bicentennial will officially get under way in the place where Lincoln’s life began — in the small town of Hodgenville, located 376 miles from Springfield. It was here that Lincoln was born and lived with his family in a 16-by-18-foot one-room cabin on a hillside overlooking Sinking Spring, and it is here that a symbolic cabin and memorial now stand in honor of such humble beginnings.

The Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Ind.

During the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Inaugural Event, on Feb. 12, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, and Law and Order star Sam Waterston will speak from the steps of the Memorial Building — the first Lincoln monument — to an anticipated crowd of thousands.

President George W. Bush has been invited to deliver the keynote address, and if he attends he will join other presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, who have traveled to Hodgenville to honor their predecessor.

Brue, who moved back to her home state in 2004 to join in the planning efforts, says the kickoff will allow Kentuckians to reclaim their connection to Lincoln. Since her return she has worked to ready his birthplace for the expected flood of visitors by renovating exhibits and refocusing on education to help them relate to Lincoln’s early life.

“The message we have been trying to convey in Kentucky is the forgotten story: that the influence of Kentucky on Abraham Lincoln affected his later policies and politics,” Brue says.

Over the next two years, Brue says, the Birthplace staff hopes to remind visitors that Lincoln’s decision to become a lawyer may have been rooted in the watching of his father’s long court battle over the title to the family farm, which he eventually lost. Also, they will point out that Lincoln first saw his parents take a stand against slavery — which was not only accepted, but promoted in the small, border state town — here and will note that Kentuckians can now celebrate this story’s importance for the first time.

“One of the things that caused disconnect during the centennial celebration was that there were still hard feelings over the Civil War and still hard feelings toward Abraham Lincoln,” Brue says, “but now we’re 100 years forward and we’re ready to celebrate our native son and talk about the hard issues.”

In addition to the Feb. 12 inaugural ceremony, Hodgenville will unveil the first wayside marker on Kentucky’s Lincoln Heritage Trail. The Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Heritage Council, along with other commissions, have been revitalizing Kentucky’s piece of the Lincoln journey and will eventually install 12 primary interpretive exhibits through 11 of the state’s counties.

Other cities in Kentucky are jumping on the bicentennial bandwagon next week, hosting musical and dramatic events in Elizabethtown and Lexington on Feb. 9, 10, and 12 and a Champagne reception and “Kentucky Salute to Abraham Lincoln,” featuring soprano Angela Brown, in Louisville on Feb. 11.

The story continues just across the Ohio River in Lincoln City, Ind., 133 miles from Hodgenville and nearly 264 miles from Springfield.

Thomas Lincoln moved his family to this area, which later was named for his famous son, in 1816 and stayed until 1830 when they moved on to Illinois. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died in Indiana, and his widowed father, Thomas, married Sarah Bush Johnson here.

The Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial now commemorates Lincoln’s years of learning about life and growing up.

Randy Wester, superintendent of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

Randy Wester, the memorial’s superintendent, has worked at the Boyhood Home for six years and has spent the better part of five years planning for the 200th-birthday celebration.

He says the Indiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission will honor Lincoln in a different way from the other states: by celebrating the time during which books and reading became a major force in Lincoln’s life. Because Lincoln’s mother and stepmother were both key influences on Lincoln’s education, Indiana’s signature event for the bicentennial will be a Mother’s Day ceremony, in May.

Wester says the commission wanted to hold its celebration after the Kentucky Inaugural, and Mother’s Day seemed to make sense, especially because Nancy Hanks Lincoln is buried nearby and the site was once called the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Memorial Park.

“We will be celebrating Lincoln’s mother and stepmother and their influence on his education and getting him to read,” Wester says. “We’re going by a quote that Lincoln once said: ‘All I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.’ ”

The event’s plans are not entirely finished, Wester says, but they have a relevant keynote speaker in mind and hope to have Indiana’s governor, senators, and congressmen in attendance. They are expecting nearly 3,000 guests and are keeping their fingers crossed for good weather, he adds — especially because May is the area’s rainiest month.

Another historic event will take place one day before the Mother’s Day ceremony: a Lincoln bicentennial encampment. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from around the Hoosier state have been invited by the National Park Service to observe Abe’s 200th by participating in a weekend-long encampment in nearby Lincoln State Park.

Scouts will take part in such hands-on pioneer activities as rail-splitting, campfire building, black-powder shooting, and meal preparation. As part of the weekend’s event, they’ll also visit the Boyhood Home’s living-history farm and meet Lincoln, Civil War, and Native American re-enactors. Wester says that the encampment is a re-creation of a similar event held in 1959, the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and that one of the Boy Scouts who attended that event is helping organize the bicentennial plans.

Other Indiana events are planned throughout 2010, including a Civil War Era Ball, a Lincoln Thanksgiving Dinner, and Christmas with Lincoln. In September the state will also take part in Lincoln’s Journey of Remembrance, a re-enactment of Lincoln’s 1828 journey from Rockport, Ind., to New Orleans in a replica flatboat.

Kay Smith of the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

There is no shortage of events planned for Lincoln’s bicentennial in Illinois — the state where he lived, worked, and became our nation’s 16th president.

In anticipation of Lincoln’s 200th birthday, says Kay Smith, the Lincoln-bicentennial coordinator for the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, her commission received $500,000 last year and $1 million this year in state grants, which are then awarded to any Illinois community that chooses to host or participate any Lincoln-related activity.

Of the 34 applications the commission received last year, Smith says, they funded 14 projects, including a new Lincoln statue in Jonesboro, a Lincoln music contest at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and the Lincoln Road Scholars — a group of Lincoln speakers who travel to events around the state. The second cycle is complete, she says, and she’s excited to announce the newest project winners at a press conference next week.

“It’s important that we’re reaching out to these communities who wouldn’t be able to be doing what they’re doing,” Smith says. “I’m so excited to speak to people from around the state who are doing so much in their own towns.”

A cabin believed to be similar to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln’s home near the Sinking Spring is housed inside the Lincoln Memorial in Hodgenville, Ky.

Another statewide event funded by the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission is the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Beginning on Aug. 22 in Ottawa, Ill., and ending on Oct. 19 in Alton, actors portraying Lincoln and Douglas will reenact the historical debates in each community on a weekend nearest to the actual date. The “Reunion Tour 2008” will be the heart of a weekend-long celebration in each community. Before these debates, the historic “House Divided Speech” will be re-enacted during a series of events June 14-16 at the Old State Capitol Historic Site in Springfield, and the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Sesquicentennial Grand Opening Event will be held on July 26 at Bryant Cottage State Historic Site, in Bement, Ill.

One of the state’s first planned activities to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth will be held on Feb. 9 in the form of an 1860 period ball at the Executive Mansion. The 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment and Band, a group that performs in full period dress, will provide music, and re-enactors will portray Lincoln and his wife.

In conjunction with its own 100th anniversary, the Abraham Lincoln Association will also begin its celebration of Lincoln’s birthday next week. During a special two-day program, the ALA will host an Abraham Lincoln Symposium at the Old State Capitol and the ALA centennial banquet at Springfield’s Crowne Plaza Hotel.

The ALA will also partner with the Springfield and Bloomington branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to co-commemorate the 1908 Springfield race riot by hosting an evening symphony concert in the Sangamon Auditorium on Feb. 11. The concert, which will feature music and the written works of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. DuBois, will be repeated in Bloomington on Feb. 13.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum recently announced activities commemorating Lincoln’s birthday, including children’s activities, theatrical performances, and a discussion and book-signing with Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, author of the newest book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Additionally, the museum will host its first trivia night on Feb. 15. Contestants will be asked: How well do you know Lincoln?

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site will also host birthday programs on Feb. 12, including the beginning of the George L. Painter Lincoln Lectures. Diane Miller and James Hill of the National Park Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom will be on hand to formally announce the designation of the Jameson Jenkins lot as a site on the Underground Railroad.

Jim Sanders, the Lincoln Home superintendent, says the staff of the national site is planning more bicentennial events for the next two years, including a series of programs that will highlight significant times in Lincoln’s life in Springfield.

For now, he says, the staff is working on renovating the site and installing new exhibits in preparation for anticipated increase in visitor numbers.

“We will be given national importance,” Sanders says, “so we want to be ready for that.”

If these single events aren’t enough, other events, such as the Lincoln Bicentennial Bike Tour, have been created so that visitors can travel through all three of Lincoln’s home states in one sweep.

In 2008 and 2009, two organized bike tours — the “Tour de Lincoln” — will closely follow the original pioneering trek of the Lincoln family over 360 miles of prairies, rolling hills, and riverside bluffs. Cyclists will begin at the Birthplace site in Hodgenville, make their way to the Boyhood Home in Lincoln City, and then arrive in Springfield for a multiple-destination tour of spots such as the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State Historic Site and the Lincoln Tomb.

Todd Volker, the tour’s director, says he started planning the event a year ago to give people a chance to make the full journey through Lincoln’s life.

“People pick up bits and pieces here or there, but this is the full story,” Volker says. “You get the birth, the boyhood, and the grown man — this is a pretty comprehensive look.”

For more information on these events and others, visit the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Web site, www.lincoln200.net; the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Web site, www.kylincoln.org; and the Indiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Web site, www.in.gov/lincoln.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com

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