Presidential History at the Heart of the Yellow Brick Road: Illinois offers sites from walking history to a historic courthouse

2602-31There is still a sense of optimism running through the town where Abraham Lincoln spent much of his career as a young Illinois attorney. His friend Jesse Fell recalled encouraging Lincoln to run for president when they met across from the courthouse in Bloomington’s Phoenix Block, aptly named for how quickly it sprang back to life after a devastating fire swept through the town.

The courthouse is now the McLean County Museum of History and the architectural anchor of downtown Bloomington. It was rebuilt after a turn of the century fire, but many of Lincoln’s artifacts survived and are on display, including numerous mourning items, attesting to Lincoln’s mutual love affair with the town. On weekends, Bloomington boasts a ghost tour with a Lincoln buff in full regalia and his wife, a spiritualist, as Mary Todd Lincoln. In some ways the crowds evoke the same spirit as a New Orleans ghost tour, just substitute the 16th president of the United States as your guide.

Accompanying a circuit judge riding by carriage throughout the district, Lincoln honed his oratory skills in Illinois. Those skills would serve him well from the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the ringing words of “Fourscore and seven years ago” in the Gettysburg Address. Back in Bloomington, Lincoln’s party split from the Whigs and named itself Republican just after his famous Lost Speech, delivered at a downtown convention where the principles of the anti-slavery movement were forged.

Lincoln lore in the Midwest is addictive and the courthouse itself is an inspiring edifice. Each season the bells chime out on the hour through icy branches, new blossoms or, as in this morning, trees with leaves newly turned to gold. Fallen leaves crunch under boots in a walk across the courthouse lawn, and result in the combination of mulch and earth that smells like autumn coming on.

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We moved to Illinois from New Orleans, and on the following Halloween, A. Renee’ gourmet wine shop hosted a Mardi Gras-themed benefit in the historic courthouse. The gala may have been partly to help an evacuee couple feel at home with costumes, a New Orleans musician, and the city’s Lincoln statue bedecked with Mardi Gras beads and purple, gold, and green balloons. Kelly’s Bakery and Café provided Louisiana-themed food, and her dishes were the talk of the evening.

Even though Bloomington residents spend more per capita on dining out than in any other town in the United States, one still has to search far and wide to find a bottle of Tabasco on the table. (Food is what will always bring New Orleanians home no matter how many trips along the Mississippi River that entails.) In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, a flatboat crew recently reenacted the trip he took down the Muddy Mississippi River in the 1800s. Floating from Illinois down to New Orleans, the Louisiana Purchase territory must have offered sights far removed from anything the backcountry boy had ever witnessed.

Lest Bloomington history seem strictly Lincoln based, it’s important to tell the tale of Frank Baum’s book about a boy’s journey to another dimension. Before the book was published, Baum’s infant niece died, the first girl in the family for years, and to comfort his grieving sister he changed the main character from a boy to a girl. The child’s name was Dorothy Louise Gage and she has inspired generations to pay attention to the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Her grandmother Dorothy also inspired Baum not only as a suffragist, but also as an early candidate for President of the United States, and their legacy lives on. In Dorothy’s name, Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington dedicated a plot of land to infants of families who could not otherwise afford their burials. Ten years ago Mikey Carroll, who played a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, dedicated a new headstone honoring the inspiration for Dorothy.

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This weekend Evergreen Cemetery held its annual costumed Voices of the Past walk. From Absalom Hawkins, an African American hack driver in early Bloomington, to the Vroomans, the couple who originally promoted the Victory Garden concept and organized one of the first traveling military jazz bands during World War I, spirits walked in a manner familiar to any New Orleans resident.

Evergreen boasts larger than life characters including pitcher Charles “Hoss” Radborn, thought to be the inspiration for the term Charlie Horse. In 1884 he won the baseball Triple Crown with a 1.38 ERA, 60 wins and 441 strikeouts, and is said to be the first person to flip the bird in his team photo, which must have taken a fair amount of follow-through in a deroggotype.

Asahel Gridley rests in Evergreen Cemetery. The Voices of the Past guide shared that as one of the wealthiest local businessmen of his day, Gridley built a home so ostentatious Abraham Lincoln asked him, “Do you want everyone to hate you?”

Then there’s Lincoln’s friend Jesse Fell. An environmentalist renowned for planting hundreds of trees, founding the local newspaper and college, Fell’s gravestone is under the tree, which boasts the first fall foliage in Evergreen each year. The cemetery tour guide explains that, “We always know it’s fall when Jesse’s tree starts to turn.” Vice President Adlai Stevenson and Governor Adlai Stevenson II, twice a presidential candidate, rest in Evergreen cemetery, and the cemetery marker for Adlai II is in the shape of the United Nations building in honor of his service there from 1961 to 1965.

As the final resting place for Stevenson and the original Dorothy, Bloomington will always hold a place in presidential history at the heart of the Yellow Brick Road.

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