Stopping By: See where Lincoln laid his head at Fithian Home


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DANVILLE – I've been to the Vermilion County Museum many times over the years. At first I went to the Fithian Home, the site of the original museum, and later to the museum center that was completed in 2002.

On a recent visit to the Fithian Home, I focused my attention on the bedroom where Abraham Lincoln slept as the guest of Dr. William Fithian, a local physician, businessman and politician.

The two men were sworn into the Illinois Legislature as representatives in 1834 and remained great friends until Lincoln's death.

Lincoln's visit to the Fithian family home on Sept. 21, 1858, after completing his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas while campaigning for the U.S. Senate was notable because of a story still told today.

Lincoln had removed his boots to rest after the long day when a group of people arrived on the south lawn wanting to hear from the candidate. Lincoln's feet had swollen, and he couldn't get his boots back on.

So, probably a little embarrassed at the informality, he stepped through the window onto a balcony in his stocking feet and spoke to the people. The balcony is one of the first things people see at the house.

Many of the fancier details of the house were added by its second owners, the Feldkamp family, but it was still a very large home when it was built, taking from 1851 to 1855 to complete at a cost of $6,000, according to Sue Richter, museum director. The exterior walls' bricks were formed, dried and fired locally.

On my visit, I bypassed the doctor's surgery, parlor, formal dining room and the study (which contains artifacts of Joseph B. "Uncle Joe" Cannon, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) and headed straight up the ornate staircase to the second-floor sleeping quarters.

In the southeast corner is the Lincoln Room where the future president slept. What strikes you first is how small the bed seems considering Lincoln was 6-foot-4. Today, the bed would be considered the size of a double bed.

The bed is against the east wall now. I learned that museum staff rotates the furniture in all the rooms every six months to help with its preservation by protecting it from direct sunlight as well as the heat and cold exposure from the nearly floor to ceiling windows and the newer heating and cooling systems.

As I'm wondering how Lincoln could sleep comfortably in this small bed, I consult Annabelle Clark, who is a 10-year museum volunteer. Most of that time has been spent as an interpreter for the Lincoln bedroom, and Clark likes the tours for schoolchildren and adults with a child's curiosity.

The children's tours are invited beyond the chain that protects the original floor from too much traffic. The students sit on the floor, the very boards Lincoln walked on more than 150 years ago.

The answer to my sleeping question: "People often sat up to sleep," said Clark, 77, a retired nurse.

Back then, people had a lot of breathing problems, Clark tells me. The air they would breathe was filled with dirt and grain dust in the summer and wood and coal soot in the winter.

"They would cough all night if they didn't sit up," she said.

The bed has two decorative pillows propped against the spindle headboard that are ornately decorated with ivory on ivory embroidery and lace and bear the initials P.L. (President Lincoln) in script. When tipped forward, the pillows are revealed as only fancy covers tied over thin boards that gave sleepers support.

Above the bed is a dusty rose fabric gathered to a center gold medallion in the wood canopy frame. While I always thought of canopies as decorative, it turns out they were actually very functional.

"Everything had a purpose back then," Clark said. "Blankets were hung from the frame to keep the body heat in and the cold out in the winter and mosquito netting replaced the blankets in the summer months because windows didn't have screens."

It still gives Clark a remarkable feeling to stand on the same boards where the Great Emancipator once stood. I too realized the enormity of preserving something so special and precious for posterity.

Danville was a special place for our 16th president. He had many personal friends and colleagues here.

After being elected to the presidency, Lincoln headed to Washington on a train with Ward Hill Lamon, his Danville law partner, friend and personal bodyguard. Although his last scheduled speaking stop was in Tolono, before leaving Illinois, Lincoln asked the engineer to stop near what is still downtown Danville.

He took his leave of the county that February in 1861 with the words: "If I have blessings at my disposal, Old Vermilion will come in for a bountiful share."

If you go

What: Lincoln Room of the Fithian Home

Where: Vermilion County Museum, 116 N. Gilbert St., Danville

Directions: Take Interstate 74 to the Gilbert Street exit north into Danville. Fithian Home is one block north of Main Street on the west side of Gilbert. Off-street parking is available.

Phone: 217-442-2922

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Regular admission: $2.50, adults; $1, ages 13 through 17; free, younger than 12 for the museum center; $4 for adults for both the Fithian Home and museum center or $2.50 for adults for the Fithian Home only.

Lincoln Birthday Celebration: 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Feb. 8. Admission is free. Live entertainment, historical characters in the Fithian Home, submissions for school children's birthday card contest on exhibit, newspapers from Lincoln campaign era on display (all month), light refreshments served.

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