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The 300-plus guests for Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday at the capitol last Thursday evening were treated to a wonderful spectacle and a downright good time.
The capitol building, built in 1836, was bathed in the soft glow of accent lights around the building’s foundation, complemented by the period streetlights surrounding the Public Square.
The chandeliers sparkled through the windows of the two-story building, adding to the beauty of the historic structure and enhancing the feeling of expectancy that my son, Ethan, and I were already feeling.
A small boy in soldier garb stood sentry outside the open front door. Two steps inside, I was greeted by Mary Todd Lincoln, wearing a lovely cream taffeta gown with a bronze quilted cape, who then introduced her husband, the president. Quite without meaning to, I curtsied. It was that kind of evening.
Two Union soldiers, Scotty Slayback (the boy soldier was his son, Sheldon) and Josh Long from the 81st Illinois Volunteer Infantry re-enactors, stood at attention inside the main hall as presidential guard. Josh’s wife, Katy, garbed in period attire, added to the flavor of the event, as did Brian Garner, Mary Truitt, Bret Brosman and his granddaughter.
In the hallways of the east and west wings of the building, replicas of Vandalia’s wayside exhibits were displayed on easels. Dale Timmermann, who spent more than three years in their making, explained the stories behind each.
A glass case holding a portion of Kevin Kaegy’s Lincoln collection was on display in the Supreme Court Room. Among the rare Lincoln portraits was an original copy of an Illinois law book from 1836.
Bruce Richards used his expertise to set up the wireless transmission of the program unfolding upstairs for viewing on a big-screen television in the Supreme Court Room, as well as on Vandalia’s cable channel.
All seats were taken in the Hall of Representatives, where Abraham Lincoln and so many other notable men served the young state of Illinois. The speaker, Kaegy, a consummate storyteller, entertained the crowd with tales of the antics of the Lincoln boys, Willie and Tad.
Standing out in my mind is the William Herndon story of Lincoln bringing the children, whom Herndon described as “them little devils,” to their Springfield law office, where Herndon was a junior law partner.
While the children proceeded to tear up the office by scattering books and papers, climbing on the tables and throwing inkwells against the wall, their father sat with his nose buried in law briefs. Poor Herndon! He was livid, and I had a few ideas of my own of what measures I, as a mother and grandmother, would have taken to adjust the situation.
In Springfield, Julia Remann Sprigg lived across Eighth Street from the Lincoln family. Julia was a Vandalia native, having come with her parents to the capital in 1819 as members of the Ernst Colony. She married John C. Sprigg in Vandalia, and when the capital moved to Springfield in 1839, so did the Sprigg family.
Julia’s orphaned niece, Olivia Leidig, was a member of their household and playmate of Willie and Tad Lincoln. In 1928, Olivia, who had returned to Vandalia to live out her days, was given the honor of unveiling Vandalia’s Madonna of the Trail statue.
Julia’s brother, Fred Remann, built the mansion that now serves as the Fayette County Courthouse. A second brother, Henry, also moved to Springfield, and lived down the block from his sister. Henry Remann’s son, Henry Jr., was Willie Lincoln’s bosom pal.
From Julia Sprigg, we learn that their back yard was a major playground for the neighborhood children, including the Lincolns. One of Tad Lincoln’s games was to run into the Sprigg house and hide from his parents.
One day, Lincoln opened the back door of the house and asked, “Where is that bad boy?” Mrs. Sprigg replied, “I do not think he is so very bad. You are surely mistaken, Mr. Lincoln,” while silently pointing to Tad’s hiding place. Pulling the squealing and laughing child from beneath a bed, Mr. Lincoln carried his youngster home.
“Let the children have a good time” were the by-words of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. From the stories recorded by William Herndon, Julia Sprigg and Julia Taft Bayne about the Lincoln family’s life in Springfield and at the White House, I would say Abraham and Mary’s little darlings did just that.
For those of us who had the good fortune to be a part of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday celebration, we were treated to a spectacle and a downright good time.