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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 01:03 am

Visit Postville, where Lincoln argued cases

Courthouse replica offers a feel for 19th century justice

A fireplace n the courtroom.
The Postville Courthouse in Lincoln.

Despite local opposition, in 1929 Henry Ford bought and dismantled the courthouse in Postville and had it set up again at his Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. The courthouse became more valuable to the community when they learned they were going to lose it, says Shirley Bartelmay, coordinator of the Postville Courthouse State Historic Site in Lincoln.

Starting in 1840, Abraham Lincoln had argued cases in the courthouse as he rode the then Eighth Judicial Circuit, but in 1847 the Logan County seat was moved to Mt. Pulaski and the courthouse was sold at auction. It changed hands more than once, and one owner, Timothy Beach, tried to sell it. When Ford sent a representative to look into the courthouse, Mrs. Beach consented to Ford's buying the building. She said it would just become an empty shell if it stayed where it was. The community couldn't afford to keep it up. Many notables attended the building's grand opening in Greenfield Village on Oct. 21, 1929.
The community of Postville eventually disappeared, and the place became part of Lincoln. The state began construction of the replica on the original grounds in Lincoln, with the exterior completed in 1953 and the interior three years later.

As visitors approach the building today, surrounded by beautiful old trees, the first thing they encounter is the flower garden, named for Mary Todd Lincoln. In the mid-19th century, most flowers planted had a medicinal purpose, Bartelmay points out. In Mary Lincoln's garden outside the courthouse, for instance, Lamb's Ear plays a prominent role. It was used to stop bleeding. "Older people are really interested in it," Bartelmay says.

The first floor of the reconstructed building holds various exhibits, like the rocker that Lincoln sat in many times at the home of Sen. Malden Jones of Bourbonnais. The Jones family donated the chair just last Christmas, though not with its original upholstery. Bartelmay says all furniture in the building is from the 1840s.

Upstairs is the courtroom and an office for lawyers. Arrival of the circuit riders in the spring and fall was a social event, Bartelmay says. People turned out to greet the lawyers and Judge David Davis or Judge Samuel Treat. "Everyone came to town on court days," Bartelmay says. The contingent stayed until all cases were completed, with many people paying the attorneys in goods and not cash. During the time Lincoln was on the circuit, he was also politically active, being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846.

The courtroom seems tiny by today's standards. Everything is small, from the judge's desk to the lawyers' table, which faces a wall and not the judge, to the six jurors' chairs, to the two rows of spectator benches. On the lawyers' table are original documents.

The courtroom "was big enough for everyone who had to be there," Bartelmay says. People crowded into the room, which must have at times been steamy, with flies coming in through open windows. The overflow crowd sat on the floor to observe the proceedings. Candles were stored in straw, so that when they melted from the heat they did not meld together. Unfortunately, records of proceedings were destroyed in an 1857 fire.

Across the street, where the VFW Hall now stands, was Deskins Tavern, with beds upstairs for visitors. In front of it was a pump to a well from which they all drank water. During the town of Lincoln's sesquicentennial celebration, the well was opened, and 34 feet down the water was still there, but contaminated.

The office where lawyers worked contains newspapers from 1847 and law books from
the era.

Maintained by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the courthouse hosts about 6,000 visitors every year. Earlier this summer people from the Czech Republic came through, and earlier still some Japanese. It has seen visitors from 23 foreign countries and 35 of the United States. As the courthouse sits on Old Route 66, many people touring the Mother Road also stop by.

The hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Bartelmay will open it by appointment. Call 217-732-8930 or 217-737-0979.

The site hosts special events throughout the year. The 1800s Craft Fair, an annual event, is scheduled this year for Aug. 24 on the grounds. It features crafts and music from that era. A Christmas Memories Quilt Show will be held from Oct. 28 through Nov. 9. The Christmas Open House will be Dec. 6.

Linda Hughes of Springfield has worked for daily newspapers in several central Illinois cities.