By Rachael McMillan
When I was an undergrad at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, a visit from my parents meant a trip to nearby Lincoln Log Cabin. It was a good way to kill an hour before going out to eat, the alternative being staring back and forth at the Pulp Fiction and Beatles posters hung on the otherwise bare walls of my low-rent apartment. We would go to the site, glance in the windows of the closed cabin, check out the rustic farm, get back in the car, and head to Pizza Hut.
On a whim, my own family unit recently decided to take a trip to the area. Our intended destination was the Charleston-Rantoul football game—GO EAGLES!!!—but we got to town early enough to see some of the local scenery. We ate lunch at the Burger King in Mattoon, (no, not the Home of the Whopper), drove by the “castle,” and headed out of town for the obligatory run-in-run-out visit to Lincoln Log Cabin.
Sorry, Coach Carter, but we never made it to the football game.
Things have changed at the Lincoln Log Cabin site. What was once a pretty basic do-it-yourself tourist destination now features a really cool visitor’s center/museum, gift shop, and, “interpreters”—volunteers who dress and speak as if they are members of the Lincoln family in the year 1845. (At first, I was a little nervous about being approached by enthusiastic costumed folk, but I cannot begin to tell you how cool they were.)
Before our recent visit, I remembered nothing about the cabin’s connection to President Lincoln. My best guess was that maybe Abraham—pronounced “Abram” by the interpreters—stopped there once for a meal and to use the outhouse.
Clearly, the goal of the new programming is to transform the cabin and surrounding farm from a historically significant plot of land to living, breathing, history. I can now tell you who lived there (Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, Abe’s father and stepmother), and that Abraham would visit there a couple of times a year when he traveled the 8th Circuit as a lawyer.
The cabin itself is an exact replica of the original, built on the same site. The fact that it isn’t the same one Thomas and Sarah lived in kind of bothered me until I realized that, at some point, my own house will probably be a “replica” of the original. Eight years into owning it our siding, roof, and some windows are new. (Next up, flooring.)
The museum features mannequins posed as if tending to the house and farm as well as a glimpse at what a general store would have looked like. There are clothes to try on and era-appropriate toys to play with, as well as a small theatre where visitors can watch a 14-minute video acquainting them with the farm.
Neighboring Sargent Farm has been moved to the premises of the Lincoln Log Cabin site to show the contrast between the traditional type of farming the Lincolns did and more progressive farms of the day. We didn’t make it to the Sargent farm, but look forward to going back and checking it out.
The Living History Programming (i.e. interpreters) will be there until October 31st, after which—except for special events—they’ll be gone until May. Check out information about the site’s educational programming and its calendar of events. Although admission is free, there is a suggested donation of $4 per person or $10 for a family. We paid gladly, and hope to do so again soon.
What: Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site
Where: Approximately eight miles south of Charleston on Highway 1420/Lincoln Highway Road.
When: Open year-round; see website for details.
How much: Admission is free, but donations are accepted and appreciated.
Rachael McMillan is a former high school teacher, social worker, cake decorator, and just about any other profession you can think of do-er. In addition to writing, tutoring, and giving talks about fair trade, she is currently staying home with the highly entertaining Jack and Kate.