Looking for Lincoln? (or trying to nap in the backseat?)

[The following is a radio essay aired on NPR member station Tri States Public Radio some time in 2007, I think-- when the "Looking for Lincoln" Heritage Coalition, based in Springfield, announced plans to put up more than 150 historical signs across central Illinois that point out places where Lincoln made history.

Commentator Alison McGaughey tries to envision who, exactly, is “looking” for Lincoln.

I was surprised to read in the news recently that one of the fancy new “Looking for Lincoln” signs will be placed in Fountain Green, Illinois— just a few miles down the road from where I grew up.

All my life, I only knew the village of Fountain Green for one thing: that it was home to a giant vehicular graveyard—the place where my high school cruising car was laid to rest.

But it turns out some of Lincoln’s relatives are buried there.

And Fountain Green isn’t the only place in Hancock County were signs will be going up.

For example, one sign will explain that Lincoln tried, and lost, a case in the Hancock County Courthouse in Carthage.

Another will point out a place where he likely stayed the night, and another, where he gave a speech.

How could it be that until this sign campaign was announced, I had never known any of this before?

I knew there was a big rock on the Courthouse lawn that had something to do with Lincoln, but had no idea my tiny hometown had so many connections to one of the most significant men in American history.

When my friends and I were teenagers, we made more loops around that courthouse square (in that aforementioned car) than… well, more times than is worth mentioning.

But I guess I never discovered these facts about my surroundings because I had never been looking for them.

Which prompts the question: who is?

As these signs go up, I know there are history buffs who will come to track down historical tidbits and trivia.

And they will bring bucks to town when they do.

That’s what local developers and the Looking for Lincoln program promoters are banking on.

According to a story from the Peoria Journal-Star, the program is an effort to spread Lincoln history, and related tourism, beyond just Springfield.

But is it a little idealistic to think there are people out there who care enough about Lincoln history to hit the road?

When families decide to spend their hard-earned money and vacation time on a road trip, aren’t they more likely to make an excursion to Disney World than to Fountain Green, Illinois (“Where Good Cars Go to Die”)?

But just as I begin to doubt, a vision comes to my mind—an image of a great man.

Not Lincoln behind a courtroom lectern.

But my dad—behind the wheel of a brown station wagon.

And the vision speaks to me, saying that the Lincoln signs will have an audience— if families like the one I grew up in still exist. Families who venture not to Disney World, but to…DeSmet, South Dakota.

One year, on our way out west to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, we made a special venture to the tiny, out-of-the-way town of DeSmet—which I remember being about as lovely as its name—all to see, and get our pictures taken in front of, one of the places Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived, and her grave marker.

We spent money in DeSmet, too, because we stayed the night there in a truly Mom-and-Pop hotel. ( Although, at least one potential tourism dollar went down the drain, when Dad realized he had forgotten his toothbrush—and there was no place open at 8 o’clock at night to buy a replacement.)

So, each time I see one of the new Looking for Lincoln signs, I will be reminded of all the times I would just be settling into a nap—a Dramamine-induced nap—only to hear Dad call over his shoulder, “Look out the window, kids: another historical marker! ‘Hysterical marker’ coming up!!”

If there are families out there who still take road trips together, I hope the parents will take time to stop at all the turn-outs for historical markers.

I hope they do force their kids to learn a bit of trivia and history.

But I also hope they do remember to bring their own toothbrush.

About Alison McGaughey

Alison McGaughey was raised in Hancock County, IL, home of one single stoplight and one holy site known 'round the world (look it up). As a newspaper columnist, McGaughey interviewed C- and D-list celebrities, investigated the origin of the Rueben sandwich, and unintentionally set off a firestorm of hate mail from Phil Collins fans. Now a writing instructor and adult-literacy advocate, McGaughey lives and works in Iowa. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Midwestern Gothic, Hippocampus Magazine, and, most recently, in the international anthology What I Couldn't Tell My Mother. She gets super excited when readers send her mail at alison dot sixdegrees @gmail.com.

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2 Responses to “Looking for Lincoln? (or trying to nap in the backseat?)”

  1. Al - Veedersburg says:

    To a point you are totally correct about traveling ALL those miles. The dear ‘ole economy’ (price of gas) does limit ability to run Lincoln down.

    So can you and any-one else help out by listing photos and info about these “Historic Markers” on http://www.hmdb.org (Historical Markers Data Base). You do not need to be interested in history. All it takes is an interest in taking a photos and playing with your mind and the inter-net.

    In this way those of us that can not make all the miles will be able to see them.

    Please include any war memorials in your neck of the woods. Also, freely add any other historic markers you see or “”hunt down””. After a time, the fun is in the adventure of hunting them..! !

    Thanks greatly.

  2. Ted Hickox says:

    I started hunting for these signs back in 2009 and so far I’ve found 150 of them. If you are interested in seeing these signs, just google the name speedlearner. I videotaped the signs and they are on my YouTube channel. If anyone has found the signs in Ottawa or Fountain Green, I would love to hear from you.

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