Minding the store at New Salem

We bring the past alive. But we can’t keep doing it with volunteers alone.


Since the full-time interpreters were laid off in August, I’ve been minding the store at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site.

For 10 years now, I’ve been a volunteer interpreter in the log schoolhouse during the summer. It’s a nice fit with my day job as a teacher. Since the layoffs, though, I’ve been greeting visitors in the historic village’s stores on Saturdays. They’re more central to the story of New Salem and Abraham Lincoln’s years there as a young man.

This year I stayed on into the fall. It’s a busy season, and my volunteering on Saturdays lets us keep three or four buildings open instead of two or three. So it makes a difference, especially when the state of Illinois isn’t exactly living up to its responsibilities.

Here’s what it’s like, volunteering at New Salem. One day I’m talking with a family in the Second Berry-Lincoln Store. Grandmother wearing one of those beautiful saris in deep reds and purples, gold thread woven into the fabric. Grandkids darting around in shorts and running shoes. Mom and dad in plaid shirts and tan pants like you buy from an outdoor-themed mail-order house. I’m explaining how Lincoln and his business partner, William Berry, got too deep in debt and their stores “winked out,” but Lincoln got appointed postmaster, read law books and got elected to the state legislature.

“Ah,” says the mom. “He learned something then.”

When visitors come into the store, I tell the story of Lincoln, Berry and their two stores, of course. But I try to size up their interests, too. So I might explain how to build a fire, as I did last month with a den of Cub Scouts from Peoria. Another time I talked with a guy from the Civil War Roundtable in Kankakee about how Lincoln’s cultural roots in Kentucky, one of the themes we interpret at New Salem, influenced his presidential career. I’ve welcomed birdwatchers from suburban Chicago, antique car buffs from Iowa, youth groups and families from all over the United States, often with a foreign exchange student or two in the group.

My last Saturday keeping store, I was talking with a visitor from California. In his 40s, maybe a Silicon Valley type, neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a sweater over cargo pants. Knew a lot about Lincoln, too. We were outside the First Berry-Lincoln store. Golden afternoon in late October, smokeless heat shimmering in the sunshine above the chimney as a fire burned inside.

“You know,” he said, “I thought it was going to be ticky-tacky, an ‘authentic reproduction.’” He drew quotation marks with his fingers. “But it’s not like that. You can read about (Lincoln) in books, but coming out here … this is what it must have been like sitting around the fireplace telling stories and talking politics. It must have gotten crowded in there.”

That, I think, is what we can do for visitors as historical interpreters. We say it so often it’s gotten to be a cliché. We bring the past alive.

But we can’t keep doing it with volunteers alone.

By the end of October, my Saturdays at New Salem were cutting into the time I needed for my day job. I have papers to grade and classes to prepare for, even on sunny weekend afternoons, and I can’t subsidize the state of Illinois indefinitely when the governor’s office and the state legislature aren’t living up to their responsibilities.

I don’t pretend to understand the state’s latest budgetary crisis. But after volunteering at New Salem, especially this year, I’m more convinced than ever we have a national resource in the Lincoln sites that needs stable, predictable sources of revenue in order to maintain an adequate interpretive program. And funding from the state of Illinois, as so many health care providers, social service agencies and other vendors have learned in recent years, is neither stable nor predictable.

At various times, New Salem has owed its continued existence to private-sector benefactors like newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, local organizations like the Old Salem (now New Salem) Lincoln League and federal agencies, beginning with the Civilian Conservation Corps as well as state government. Perhaps the time has come to explore a wider range of partnerships between the private sector and government at all levels.

Peter Ellertsen teaches at Springfield College-Benedictine University.

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