Thursday, February 12, 2009

Illinois celebrates Lincoln's 200th birthday

By Jay Jones, Reporting from Springfield, Ill.

OK, put on your thinking caps. It's time for a very short -- but very appropriate -- pop quiz.

Question 1: On what day is Presidents Day celebrated?

Question 2: When is Abraham Lincoln's birthday?

That's it. Pencils down, please.

Presidents Day is observed the third Monday in February. Also known as Washington's Birthday, it's been a federal holiday on this date since 1971.

Feb. 12 is the correct answer to Question 2. You're forgiven if you got that one wrong. Unless, that is, you grew up in Illinois, as I did.

Heck, even the less studious kids -- those who didn't give a hoot about history -- knew that Lincoln was born Feb. 12. His birthday was -- and still is -- a state holiday (read: a day off from school in Illinois).

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. All across Illinois -- where the official state slogan is "Land of Lincoln" -- folks are holding a year-long party. Visitors are welcome to join in by tracing the footsteps of Illinois' favorite son.

Yes, I know that Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky and that he spent his youth in Indiana. (I paid attention in class.) Still, it's Illinois that zealously lays claim to Honest Abe. He moved here when he was 21 and stayed until departing for Washington -- and the White House -- 30 years later.

Planning your trip to Springfield, Ill.

Springfield is celebrating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth with a variety of events, including candlelight tours of the Old State Capitol and a production of "Our American Cousin," the play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. A comprehensive list of events can be viewed online at www.lincoln200.net. More information, including lodging and dining options, is available at the convention and visitors bureau website, www.visit-springfieldillinois.com.

As a lawyer and a politician, Lincoln left his mark in towns and cities across the state, but nowhere more so than in Springfield, about three hours southwest of Chicago. Here, his name seems to be everywhere. His home for nearly a quarter of a century, Springfield is a good place to capture the essence of one of America's greatest leaders. You can visit newer sites, such as his presidential library and museum, as well as several historic ones, including his home, the only house Lincoln ever owned.

"Lincoln cut his political teeth in Springfield," says Tim Townsend, historian at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Long before being elected president in 1860, he served four terms in the state legislature and one in Congress.

"As a politician in central Illinois, you had to try to win the votes of a diverse audience," Townsend adds, pointing to Springfield's mix of Southerners and Yankees.

Lincoln himself weighed in on his feelings about Springfield as he boarded his inaugural train in February 1861.

"To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything," he told well-wishers.

The train station from which the president-elect departed is one of the many sites in and around Springfield where visitors can walk in Lincoln's shoes. The depot looks much the same today as it did in Lincoln's day.

Other Lincoln sites include:

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Opened in 2004, the nation's biggest and most-visited presidential museum portrays Lincoln's life both in the Midwest and in Washington. High-tech special effects -- including animated holograms -- take guests back to the 19th century to witness history in the making, from Abe's teenage years in Indiana through his presidency and the monumental struggles of the Civil War and slavery; (800) 610-2094, www.alplm.org.

The Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices. Lincoln practiced law here from 1843 to about 1852. After visiting the gallery and theater, guests take a guided tour that interprets Lincoln's legal work; www.illinoishistory.gov.

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site. "The house is where Lincoln was a husband and a father," observes Townsend. This is where, according to printed accounts, he wrestled on the floor with his sons and was scolded by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, when he was late for supper; (217) 391-3226, www.nps.gov/liho.

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