More than just ol' Abe

Stone-by-stone dismantling of the Old State Capitol began in February 1966 and reconstruction began in July 1966. A new site for the Illinois State Historical Library was built underneath the old capitol.
Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library
Stone-by-stone dismantling of the Old State Capitol began in February 1966 and reconstruction began in July 1966. A new site for the Illinois State Historical Library was built underneath the old capitol.

When Illinois Times offered me a column to write about local and regional history, I leapt at the opportunity without so much as a nanosecond of thoughtful consideration. Though I now consider myself to be solidly middle-aged, prudence, caution and foresight somehow escape me yet; too often do I leap and then look. Maybe someday I'll learn. But I am now of an age when I know a good deal when I see one, and so I therefore will be appearing here on the pages of IT on a regular basis. But one thought has since crossed my mind: Is it really a good idea for a lifelong rock-thrower to take up residence in a glass house?

Like everyone else, I have an ego, and as is the case with all other writers, seeing my own byline is an ego trip. Any writer who tells you differently is an out-and-out liar. So I consider it an honor to be asked to contribute regularly and I do not regret my decision. That is to say, I don't regret it yet, and I feel that it's worth the risk. Mind you, that's coming from a guy who once held on six in a game of blackjack. In Vegas, no less. But that happened a long time ago, and I feel that the passing of time has made me just a little wiser than that.

But that's not to say that we won't revisit the past; indeed, the past will be the major focus of this column. It is my intention to draw upon the collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, where I am employed in the Reference area, for the bulk of the subject matter of this column. Our library, which is located underneath the Old State Capitol, is chock-full of the most interesting things, and would you believe that not all of it has to do with Abraham Lincoln? Well, it's true! You are forgiven if you have begun to think of us as the "All Things Abe" Preservation Agency which administers the "All Things Abe" Historical Library. The fact is, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, of which the library is but a part, is a diverse agency with manifold holdings and services. The IHPA administers over 60 historic sites and memorials in Illinois. Here in Springfield, IHPA operates the Dana-Thomas house, the Old State Capitol, the Vachel Lindsay home and the Lincoln-Herndon law offices and the Lincoln tomb, to name a few. Next year, the long-awaited presidential library and museum complex will join that list.

My point is this: that the IHPA in general, and specifically the Historical Library, is much more than Abraham Lincoln. Through the years, Illinois has been the residence, or maybe just the stopping-place, for a wide variety of interesting and colorful people who never achieved fame or high status, but whose stories are nonetheless worthy of retelling. I do not want to revisit the familiar, no matter how extraordinary the tale, and I want to present visual images that are rarely, if ever, seen, though the subject matter itself may be quite ordinary. More than anything, I want this column to be fun and interesting for me as well as you.

The Historical Library's collections include many rare, valuable, and in some cases, priceless objects of tremendous historical interest and significance. However, sometimes it is a simple diary entry, or an unknown face that peers out from behind the patina of an age-old photograph or daguerreotype, which evokes the pathos that binds us to those people and events that have gone before us. I will leave the writing of history to the historians; what I seek to bring here to this space are merely interesting visual images and stories involving Illinois people that I hope you will enjoy reading.

There is no shortage of material from which to draw story ideas. Our collection includes old maps, trade catalogues and a tremendous amount of Civil War material. Our newspapers on microfilm department is the largest repository of Illinois newspapers on microfilm in the world. Our manuscript collection contains the stories of the famous and infamous, from generals to buck privates, from governors to immigrant travelers, from the humblest shopkeeper to an industry titan such as John Deere. Our audio-visual collection includes broadsides, film footage, ambrotypes, posters, daguerrotypes, family and political collections. And Illinois politics provides a backdrop more colorful than any that could be produced by the most skillful scene-painter anywhere.

As for you inveterate rock-throwers out there, there is another interesting, some would say compelling, section of this paper called "Letters to the Editor." Check it out!

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