Interpreters bring Abraham Lincoln days to life in Mount Pulaski Courthouse

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[February 15, 2017]  MOUNT PULASKI - Saturday was a festive and happy day at the Mount Pulaski Courthouse as guests came and went throughout the afternoon, all there in honor of Abraham Lincoln, who practiced law in the Mount Pulaski Courthouse prior to being elected President of the United States.

The guest speakers for the day were Graham, portrayed by Charles Starling, who has been interpreting Graham for nearly 30 years, including 20 years at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site.

Lincoln was portrayed by Joe Woodard from Hazel Dell, a small community located in southeast central Illinois. Woodard began his career as a Lincoln interpreter at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site in Lerna, just south of Charleston, and specializes in portrayals of Lincoln prior to his election as President of the United States.

In the courtroom, Barbara Stroud-Borth began the afternoon program welcoming guests to the Mount Pulaski Courthouse and introducing the two guest speakers.

Lincoln talked to the group first. He spoke about his upcoming trip to Washington D.C. as he had been elected President of the United States. He told the audience he was not sure how he felt about being elected. He noted that since folks in Springfield had learned he would be the president, they had flocked to him asking him to give them jobs. He felt he had probably heard from more people wanting jobs than there were jobs available in the nation’s capital.

Lincoln also said he felt bad about leaving Springfield. The town was his home and one that he loved. He concluded though that God willing he would return someday. Because he planned to come home when he was done being president, he asked his law partner not to remove the Lincoln name from the shield that hung over the door at their law practice.

Lincoln also reported that there had been a misunderstanding of his intent to abolish slavery in the southern states. He said he was called an abolitionist, but he never sought to abolish slavery. What he did intend to do was prevent the spread of slavery into other states where it did not yet exist.

Lincoln said he felt that if states where it was not legal to own slaves were prevented from changing that practice, then slavery would eventually abolish itself in the states where it did exist. He said it would die out and exist no longer, thus eliminating the problem on its own.

Later, Lincoln would also recite the speech he gave as he departed Springfield, headed to Washington, where he noted that he might never see the community again.

Mentor Graham was the next to address the courtroom filled with guests including several youngsters. Graham lived in the Petersburg/New Salem area where he taught school. While Lincoln was an adult when he moved to New Salem, he was not highly educated. He befriended Graham and learned much from the teacher on an informal basis.

Graham spoke to the audience about what school was like in the early to mid-1800’s. In New Salem, the school was called a “blab” school in that the classroom was often a loud place as children were instructed to recite aloud their lessons.

Graham said there were no grade levels at that time, kids went to school, and they learned the lessons, and that was it. He said that what he did do as an instructor was divide his room into kids who had gone to school before and kids who had not.

There were rules to be followed and punishment for breaking those rules. Rules included no one was allowed to cross their legs. Everyone sat with both feet on the floor and knees together. Every question asked of a student was to be responded to with “sir,” showing respect for the teacher.

Graham went about the room, addressing the current violations in the room and scolding his “students” for misbehaving. He explained that punishment included “black marks,” “corporal punishment,” and “expulsion.”

He asked some questions of the students in the room, and admonished those who failed to end their responses with the word “sir.”

Finally, he set the students to work. With the students who were returning to school, he set them to doing some “cyphering.” For those who were new, the first step of learning was to learn the alphabet; he set that group to reciting their ABC’s.

The cyphering class was to recite

Twice one is two – this book is very new
Twice two is four – trace it on the floor
Twice three is six – we’re always playing tricks
Twice four is eight – the boys are always late
Twice five is ten – let’s do it all again

Graham got the group started, then instructed them to continue with their cyphering until he told them to stop. He then went to the new students and got them started on reciting their alphabet. In no time the courtroom was a roar of noise that was hardly discernable between the two groups.

Graham finally stopped the chaos and said that the intense noise from the student’s recitations could have been heard outside by a passersby, which is how the school got labeled as a blab school because people would pass by and hear all the blabbering.

Graham concluded his talk about school then fielded questions from the audience, including how tuition was paid. He said that students attended school at their parent’s discretion, sometimes there and sometimes not, depending on what needed to be done at home. He said class had to start later in the morning because kids had chores to do at home. It also ended earlier in the day again because of chore time. He noted also that kids were dismissed from school at the end of the day depending on how far they had to walk to get home. All the children needed to be in their homes before dark because of the threat of wild animals. So, if kids lived, for example, eight miles from the school, they were dismissed early, while children who lived in town were held longer.

Graham also shared some insight into some of the terminology associated with money. He asked who had a buck. Someone produced a dollar bill, as expected. Graham explained that in the early days, animal skins held value. The hide of a male deer, or buck, was worth one dollar. Therefore, it became common for some to refer to a dollar bill as a buck.

He also asked if anyone had some dough. He explained that a doe skin was worth less than a dollar, so when people had change that amounted to less than a dollar, they had doe, not dough.

Graham, as well as Lincoln, continued to field questions from the audience for several minutes before closing the day’s program. Guests were encouraged to visit the downstairs area, and also enjoy refreshment before departing.

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Downstairs there was of course food. Instead of a birthday cake, the celebration offered guests the opportunity to enjoy one of Lincoln’s favorite desserts – apple pie with rum sauce. There was also a large selection of cookies served along with punch and coffee.

In the downstairs rooms, there were various activities going on for children and adults. In one room, everyone interested in giving it a try could take up a feather quill pen and do their best at imitating Lincoln’s signature.

In another room, kids could enjoy old fashioned board games such as checkers.

Stepping across the hall, there was a volunteer handing out stove pipe hats and “Lincoln beards” to anyone who wished to practice being a Lincoln impersonator.

Adults and kids alike could also take the Lincoln quiz or participate in a Mount Pulaski Courthouse Scavenger Hunt.

For the scavenger hunt, participants had to go around inside the courthouse and find the answers to questions such as how many stars are on the flag in the upstairs courtroom, and how many Lincoln top hats are always on display at the courthouse.

Lincoln quiz questions included where was he born, what was the name of Lincoln’s family dog, and what was Lincoln’s most famous speech?

In honor of Valentine’s Day, also around the corner, the last stop for some of the kids was a craft room where they could create a ‘make and take’ Valentine card to give later to a family member or friend.

For this day, there was also a photo display set up providing information about Mentor Graham, his wife, and descendants. Graham was featured downstairs in the photo display and was also making an appearance upstairs in the Courtroom.

The Mentor Graham family

Mentor and Sarah Graham

Logan County Tourism Director Bill Hoagland with Barbara Stroud-Borth.

Representative Tim Butler

[Nila Smith]

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