When I was a young boy growing up in the 1960s, my grandparents took me to some cool places in Illinois including Ulysses S. Grant’s home in Galena, Illinois and New Salem, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln lived for six years.
One of Illinois’ more interesting and historical travel destinations is Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site that offers visitors a chance to stroll through history and get a glimpse of life in 1830’s frontier America as well as the life of Abraham Lincoln where he spent his formative years.
Located approximately 20 miles northwest of Springfield on Highway 97, Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site is one of Illinois’ must-see attractions if you are in this part of the state (any trip to Lincoln’s home in Springfield and tomb would not be complete without a visit to New Salem). To be sure, this pioneer village is a veritable living museum of not only an 1830’s trading center but also offers some historic insights into Lincoln’s young adulthood.
The town, which was more of a commercial center was founded in 1829 and thrived for about twelve years before it was abandoned and left for pasture. Today’s historic site is a reconstruction of what that trading center must have been like in the time of Lincoln. The village, comprised of twenty-three historically furnished buildings was built during the 1930s and 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These buildings include several log cabins, stores, and tradesmen’s shops (the cooper shop is the only original building having been moved to this site from nearby Petersburg, Illinois), as well as the Rutledge Tavern, a school, and several mills. Additionally, other log structures and buildings are scattered throughout the village giving visitors a real glimpse of life in a pioneer village.
As one strolls through the winding paths of the village and enters structures, the past comes to life whether it’s the sound of a blacksmith shaping metal on an anvil, a candle maker dipping candles or a woman spinning wool. One literally can reach out and touch history here and feel a part of the past.
Lincoln might have been “an aimless piece of driftwood” when he first arrived here in 1831, but over the next six years, he clerked in a store, enlisted in the Black Hawk War (he was a captain, but never fought in a battle), split rails (next to the Visitor’s Center there is a nine-foot bronze statue of him holding an ax), served as postmaster and deputy surveyor, and even failed in business. He also studied law while at New Salem and was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834 and 1836 after an unsuccessful try in 1832.
During the six years Lincoln lived in New Salem, he would impress the villagers with his character and it was also where he picked up his nickname Honest Abe—no doubt stemming from one of the more famous stories about how he walked six miles to return a few cents to a customer he had overcharged. Likewise, visiting the tavern or the store where young Lincoln worked and lived, one can imagine him staying up at night and studying by a flickering candlelight.
One of the more notable structures in the village is the Rutledge Tavern where Lincoln boarded when he first arrived in New Salem and where he would meet Ann Rutledge (her father was also one of the founders and original settlers of New Salem). Although the veracity of Lincoln’s supposed love affair with Rutledge has been the subject of much debate, what is known is that they studied together and that they might have even been engaged. Sadly, she passed away in 1835 and for years after, Lincoln visited her gravesite.
Although the village did not thrive long it would definitely have an impact on the life of young Lincoln shaping the man who would become America’s sixteenth president. Today, the village is not only a reminder of what life must have been like in frontier village, but also provides visitors a glimpse into the formative years of one of America’s most beloved presidents.
Hours of Operation:
From November 1 to the end of February: Open Wednesdays–Sundays 8 a.m.–4 p.m. From March 1 to October 31: Open Wednesdays–Sundays 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed on holidays. (Days and hours of operation are subject to change, especially during winter.)
Picnic and camping sites are also available at the park. For more information about the park call 217/632-4000.