Alderman's research brings plaque, new tree where Lincoln spoke
URBANA — In 1856, it was "a magnificent elm that attracted much attention not only because of its outstanding beauty and size," according to a 1961 index.
But passers-by who see an elm tree now will remember the location at 608 E. Main St. as the spot where Abraham Lincoln spoke to the citizens of Urbana in the shade of a tree.
That magnificent elm was removed sometime in the early 1900s, but Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5, wants its memory to be secured with a new tree and a plaque that will be dedicated at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
He hopes the location will preserve Urbana's connection with the president and bolster local Lincoln lore.
Roberts first came across a picture of the elm tree when he was researching a book.
"There was this intriguing old photograph in the archive," Roberts said. "It was of a huge elm tree that used to grow in east Urbana."
The photo caption: "Big elm tree east of Big Four Shops under which Abe Lincoln made one of his famous speeches." That was enough to get Roberts digging.
He started looking at property deeds, old maps of the city and even used an obituary from the 1904 Champaign Daily Gazette to pinpoint the location. The obituary was for Nancy (Webber) Munhall, believed to be, at the time, Urbana's oldest resident at 73 years old who had been living in Urbana since 1832.
"The old elm tree at her home, said to be the largest in the county, played a prominent part in her life, and she always lived in sight of it," the obituary said. "When she died, the tree was just a few feet away. Mrs. Munhall stated to her children that seemingly the tree had not grown since she first saw it 70 years ago and believed it must be hundreds of years old. When she first came here the place was inhabited by Indians, and wolves howled around the door at night. There was nothing but prairie and wilderness and frame houses were unheard of."
Roberts thinks he has the location of the elm tree pinpointed to within 200 feet of its original location, and he helped arrange with AutoZone, the current owner of the property, to plant a new elm tree at the spot.
But that still left a major question: What did Abraham Lincoln say under the tree? It took some more digging.
Old newspaper reports recounted a Sept. 17, 1856, all-day rally for John C. Fremont, the Republican Party's first-ever presidential candidate, that was held in Webber's Grove in east Urbana. Lincoln, who would be the party's candidate four year later, spoke there.
"A most sumptuous repast was then served up by the ladies of Urbana, after which the people again assembled at different stands," according to the Chicago Democratic Press.
A Sept. 25, 1856, edition of the Urbana Union published an editorial recalling the speech, during which Lincoln "pleaded the case" for a fledgling Republican Party.
"No one can listen to Mr. Lincoln and with an unbiased mind fail to be convinced of the truth of his position and the honesty of his purpose," the editorial stated. "He is a first-class orator, eloquent, argumentative and a perfect lion in any controversy or cause."
The dates and the locations lined up. Roberts had his match.
He wanted to preserve the site's history, he said, because so many Lincoln-related locations in Urbana have been lost. It makes sense that Lincoln would have visited Urbana often on his rounds on the judicial circuit or during political campaigns, but not many of those events have been preserved in oral or written histories.
Even the original elm tree had been lost until an old photo surfaced, and Roberts said this memory can be saved with a new elm tree.
"It's totally cool, I think," Roberts said.