[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.