Come with me on vacation to The Land of Lincoln.
Recently, after an extended road trip with my brother to help him relocate him out of state, I realized (when repacking my suitcase) that I was exhausted — yet ahead of me was a 10-hour drive back to Madison. Oh well, pity party, right? But while buying gas in Columbia, Missouri, I called my husband and admitted to wishing for another night in a hotel to break up the drive, since otherwise I’d get home around 2 a.m.
Kevin agreed. “Have a decent dinner and then take some time to relax, Jo. You’re on vacation, right? You don’t have to be anywhere tomorrow or Sunday, so take your time.”
Vacation?! Wow, I’d forgotten! Suddenly my fatigue vanished — I could have a spontaneous adventure!
That night, I found a hospitable hotel in Springfield right next to a Baker’s Square serving delicious comfort food. I relaxed in a hot bath and then watched television — real TV, not TIVO! The next morning, after a hot breakfast, I got on the road again. Soon, however, I deviated from the highway just a smidge, heading for New Salem village (not the real New Salem village of about 150 people by Pittsfield, Illinois, but rather the old New Salem area by Petersburg).
I hadn’t been there for many, many years, but an old pioneer village, by definition, doesn’t change. And, since it was pouring down rain and well after peak tourist season and a weekend (no school kids on a fieldtrip), I knew I was going at exactly the right time to find some much needed solitude.
I love the Land of Lincoln, and especially the reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln spent his early adulthood. He came to the village in 1831 at the age of 22 with no definite objectives, but there he found his calling and settled into a career in law and discovered his flair for statesmanship. He was a store clerk, and spit rails, served as postmaster, and worked as a deputy surveyor. He even owned a small store. Six years later, he left to practice law in Springfield.
Today — just as when I was a school child on a field trip 40 years ago — there are 12 log houses, the Rutledgte Tavern, 10 workshops, stores, a mill and a school. Now there is also a bull who, I was warned, does not like people but who, to my delight, approached me in the rain to lick my face. Likewise, there is a “shy horse” — a Morgan (my favorite breed) who readily approached to nibble my fingers.
Want an unscheduled, 10 minute vacation yourself? Come with me to New Salem.
The historic site was open and the leaves were changing, making a beautiful backdrop.
New Salem was laid out on a bluff overlooking the Sangamon River in 1829 by James Rutledge and John Camron, who believed that Riverboats would connect St. Louis and Springfield. It was a commercial village with an enthusiastic population of about 25 families. There was a debate society and church, storytelling sessions and games — and politics. However, the village only lasted a little over 10 years, and was a ghost town by 1840, after it was determined that the Sangamon River couldn’t be navigated by steamboats.
In the interim, however, in 1932, Abraham Lincoln bought into a store with a promissory note to the owner, William Berry. Here’s what it looked like, and an idea of what was sold:
Lincoln never bought a home in New Salem; he roomed and lived above his store when it moved across the street to a bigger site. And there, he also tried his hand as postmaster. He read, one guide told me, by the light of the fireplace at the cooper’s store, where he also jawed with men about politics.
In some of the houses today, state employees or volunteers dress appropriate to their roles and the period and they give tours of the rooms. I was right — there were few visitors the day I went. I most enjoyed my time with an old woman posing as the hostess at the Rutledge Tavern. She told me that James Rutledge built it in 1828 and converted it to an inn (tavern), though he was a prohibitionist and didn’t allow for alcohol.
While cooking, she told me that law fixed tavern rates at 37.5 cents per day for a meal and overnight stay, though that was more than a day’s wages for most folks. She said that the money paid for lodging — in a good day, a tavern might have 20 visitors, with two beds — didn’t actually guarantee a bed. Only the meal and “lodging,” meaning “shelter from the weather” or “a roof over your head.” Travelers might get a great roast dinner at one stop, and gruel at the next — the quality of food wasn’t stipulated in the fee, either. However, Rutledge was known for offering a good hot meal.
Here’s the single bedroom at the tavern, with the two beds:
Not what we;d expect to share with 20 folks today…. But the tavern was only a two-room building, and I was surprised to see chairs hung on walls in the eating area to save space when they weren;t being used.
I really enjoyed my walk in the rain in New Salem. It was a quiet and peaceful opportunity to reconnect with my home state and the reason Illinois is so special to me — the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.
Here are a few more pictures, and I hope they inspire you to make a road trip of your own, soon, and to include a side trip down a one-lane country road to Lincoln’s New Salem.
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