Sunday, November 13, 2011



            Tourists will find out very quickly that Springfield, Illinois, was Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. Not only does it have the Lincoln Museum and Library with mind-blowing displays and striking holographic movies that we have previously written about, but it also has a four-block area restored to resemble the pre-1860s during the time Abe lived here.

            The only home he ever owned has been restored along with the neighboring houses.  Gaslights have been added, sidewalks replaced with wood planks and several wagons of the time are standing in the streets.

            It was a pleasant step back into time especially since we were able to have two conversations with a Lincoln impersonator.  Our first meeting was as this 6-foot-4 actor paused in raking the lawn of the home where Lincoln and Mary lived for 15 years, 1884-1861, and where their four sons were born.  The actor stayed expertly in role, for example, asked about the instrument I was pointing at him since he had heard that the French had invented something that could capture a person’s image. 

            The home tour is self guided, but so popular that visitors need a card from the nearby visitor’s center allotting an entrance time.  We were impressed with the number of park rangers stationed in the building to answer questions.  The house, furnished as it was when Lincoln lived there, has 50 of the home’s original items including Lincoln’s desk.

             He had made a comfortable living as a lawyer.  The house had a maid’s room--one of very few jobs a woman could hold in that day and seen as an opportunity for a young girl to learn how to be a wife and mother.

            At the visitor’s center four movies on Lincoln were playing throughout the day, one featuring Raymond Massey.  When we watched another movie about Abe’s years in Springfield, the impersonator in the yard was the actor playing Lincoln.  Later we again talked with him.  He looked very much as I expected Abe to look at the time he lived here.  He looked more like Lincoln than Massey did.  When I told the impersonator that I was impressed with his capturing Lincoln’s vocal tone, he said he had worked hard to integrate the vocal patterns into his performance.

            Abe fell in love with Mary Todd, a Southern belle from a family of higher social status, which complicated his courtship.  He went into a deep depression when his first proposal of marriage to her was not accepted.   I was reminded of similar problems that Presidents Grant and Truman had in their courtships.  All three were noted for being firmly in love with their wives throughout their marriages.  Mary was a great help to his political career using her family connections to get him national recognition.  Some of the material in the Lincoln movies about his children was new to me.  One son died early from tuberculosis and two others were known for their wild behavior.

            Our visit to the area was brought to a pleasant close by the performance of a group of costumed students singing songs of the period, particularly songs that were favorites of Lincoln.

We meet with Abe Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois

We meet with Abe Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Harry Truman's Birthplace

Truman’s early years come to life in Lamar

A tree planted to honor Harry Truman’s birth grows outside the house he was born in.

When I gave a talk in Lamar Missouri, I took the opportunity to visit Harry S Truman’s birthplace, now a state historical site with a small visitors center. As he is one of our favorite presidents, Carla and I present an overview of his contributions when we teach in the Osher Lifelong Learning program.

Truman was born May 8, 1884, to a father who was a mule trader and farmer. His father announced the sale of some mules in the Lamar Democrat but did not mention his son had just been born. However, in honor of Harry’s birth, he did plant a tree that is still standing next to the house.

John Anderson Truman and his new wife, Martha Ellen Truman, had bought the Lamar house in 1882 for $685. Signs of its age are apparent. It is 20 by 28 feet — I am sure many readers have rooms in their homes that are as large. When I stepped inside, I was impressed with how many rooms had been carved out of that small space. On the first floor are a living room, a kitchen with a dining area and two bedrooms. A double bed fills half the bedroom in which Truman was born. A steep, narrow stairway, like the one I climbed to my bedroom as a child, leads to two upstairs bedrooms.

When the Trumans came, all of their furniture was on a wagon, and when they left, all of the furniture was on a wagon, so the home has been furnished with period pieces. Young people might be particularly interested in the more primitive equipment of the times: kerosene lamps, pots under the bed instead of a toilet, corn cake bakers on a black wood-fired stove in the kitchen.

The home has no electricity and has an outdoor toilet of the period and a hand-dug well next to the building. A smokehouse stands beside the well. Most homes had them because, without refrigeration, meat had to be smoked to keep it from spoiling. The lot across the way that held the barn for John Truman’s mules is now an empty lot.

When Harry was 11 months old, the family moved about 100 miles north to the Independence area. The United Auto Workers donated the Lamar home to the state in 1959 for preservation, and it is now also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A guide gives brief tours to visitors when they arrive and spends some time on the collection of family pictures showing Truman as a child and at some of the major turning points in his life. The visitors center has three mannequins dressed in women’s dresses of the era.

Lamar was preparing for the 127th birthday celebration of Harry Truman, but I was a day too early to take part in this annual celebration, held on the nearest Saturday to May 8, Truman’s birthday.

The major historical sites for Truman are in Independence, and if you go, they have the bright-red Truman Trolleys that visit the Independence Square and circle past major tourism attractions during spring, summer and early fall. The fare is only $1 for all day, and you can visit both the Truman Home and the Truman Library and Museum.