Lincoln left his mark on Vandalia

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Fayette County History

By Linda Hanabarger

It was late in the afternoon on Nov. 29, 1834, when the stagecoach from Springfield made its grand entrance into Vandalia with galloping horses and horns a blaring.

Emerging from the stage were four legislators from Springfield – John Todd Stuart, William Dawson, James Carpenter and Abraham Lincoln, newly elected to represent the good people of Sangamon County.
Vandalia did not impress young Lincoln.  He was homesick for New Salem, although he was looking forward to the duties ahead of him in state government. As a freshman, Lincoln listened to elder statesmen as they delivered speeches. He watched and learned.
He had a way about him, and people enjoyed the colorful way he told stories.  Lincoln was well liked by most of his fellow lawmakers and other people with whom he came in contact.
It seemed that Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas of Morgan County did not hit it off.  A look at their voting records indicates that when Lincoln voted in favor of a measure, Douglas was found to have voted against it.
It was Douglas and the Morgan County delegation who vowed to absolutely fight the relocation of the capital to Springfield.  This probably did not endear the men to each other. Later, they would vie for Mary Todd’s affections.
Lincoln and William L.D. Ewing also did not bond. Lincoln was pro-Sangamon County, which included moving the capital.  Ewing was definitely in favor of keeping the seat of government in Vandalia. The hot-headed Ewing, who defeated Lincoln by two votes for speaker, once called him out to a duel, an event that was quickly squashed by Ewing’s friends.
Lincoln was a resident of Vandalia off and on from November 1834 until the final session in December 1839. He received his license to practice law from the state supreme court in Vandalia.
It is told that Lincoln visited “Meditation Springs” (called “Deer Springs” by locals) at the east end of what is now Orchard Street.  He is known to have boarded at “The Sign of the Globe” (owned by Lemuel Lee), the Charter Hotel (owned by John Charter), the Flack House and the Vandalia Hotel.
James T.B. Stapp kept a lodging house in Vandalia, and Ewing M. Doyle, who worked for Stapp, told of the many evenings he and Lincoln chopped wood together after the legislature had adjourned its session for the day.
The small bungalow, which stood until 1966 at 615 W. Johnson Street was also home to Lincoln during two legislative sessions.  Tillie Ernst, whose father came to Vandalia with the Ernst Colony in 1819, was one who remembered that Lincoln rented the southwest room in the house.
One day, as some men were setting out on a hunt, they invited Lincoln to go with them.  He, in turn, said, ‘Friend, you can go out and get the deer, bring it back, Charter here will cook it and I’ll eat it.”
While dancing with Matilda Flack one evening at the “Flack House,” Lincoln stepped on her dress, tearing it. Although Lincoln was embarrassed, he handled the incident with good grace, as remembered by Mrs. Flack.
Lincoln’s shingle froe, with his distinctive initials carved into the handle, is a cherished Vandalia relic. It was a farewell gift to Paul Beck from Lincoln when he embarked on his new job as lawmaker. The men had been friends in Petersburg.
When Lincoln complained to a friend of the wet plaster and drafty corridors of the newly built Vandalia Statehouse, his friend said, “It’s no wonder you are so cold, there is so much of you on the ground,” a humorous reference to the size of Lincoln’s feet.
Benjamin F. Lee, a son of Lemuel Lee, said that Lincoln was forced to sit sideways in the House chambers because of his long legs.
Lincoln walked Vandalia’s streets. He drank water from her streams, lodged in her boarding houses, chopped wood with her citizens and danced with her ladies.
In Vandalia, Lincoln first formulated his thoughts on slavery. From the time he stepped down from the stage on that cold November evening to the last day when he saddled his horse for the return trip to Sangamon County, Lincoln left his mark on Vandalia.
And Vandalia left her mark on Abraham Lincoln.