SPOTLIGHT: Museum shows rivers' impact on Lincoln

By Huey Freeman

(Decatur) Herald & Review

Published: Friday, Feb. 10 2012 4:40 a.m. MST

MOVE PHOTO AT 4:OO AM CST FRIDAY FEB. 10, 2012 - In this photo taken Feb. 4, 2012, Abraham Lincoln presenter, Lonn Pressnall, and Pat McDaniel look over a recent article talking about funding issues at historical sites across the country. Pressnall was preparing to present a program called 'Lincoln and his Legacy with the Sangamon River' at the Macon County History Museum in Decatur, Ill., Saturday Feb. 4, 2012.

Herald & Review, Lisa Morrison, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

DECATUR, Ill. — In the early 19th century, when roads were often impassable and railroads were in their infancy, pioneers relied on rivers to travel, transport cargo and transmit information.

Abraham Lincoln, who earned his first dollar working a river ferry and first learned about the law when he was taken to court by a rival ferryman, was greatly influenced by his river experiences.

Dressed in a three-piece black suit with tails, Lincoln presenter Lonn Pressnall delivered a first-person narrative of how "his alter ego" began his longtime relationship with the Sangamon River, at the Macon County History Museum earlier this month.

When his family first moved to Illinois, after resting briefly in what is now downtown Decatur, they settled on a new place on the north side of the Sangamon River, said the tall man with the folksy, down-to-earth persona.

"We immediately took a likin' to the Sangamon," he said. "We were told the Potawatomi had named the river 'Sangamon,' which means: plenty to eat."

Lincoln discovered that a river that contained plenty of fish in the warm months presented danger in the winter.

He recalled that during his first winter in Macon County he stepped through the ice, suffered frostbitten feet and spent a couple of weeks recuperating in Sheriff Warnick's home. He took advantage of his misfortune by reading law books found in the sheriff's home.

Because of his habit of devouring books, Lincoln was acquainted with improvements that had been made in the East, by transforming waterways into canals.

"My earliest political interests centered on improving the Central Illinois waterways including the Sangamon, which I believed could be dredged near the Illinois River and cleared of fallen timber," he said, adding that canals could increase population and general revenue in the state.

However, he discovered that this vision was unrealistic, because the Sangamon was too shallow, too serpentine and too full of snags to be converted into a canal.

While Lincoln lived near the Sangamon for most of his adult life, it was a journey down the Mississippi River when he was a teen that probably had the biggest impact on him.

He recalled that he saw a New Orleans slave market in which a woman about his age was prodded and probed like a piece of livestock. Lincoln vowed that he would do what he could to fight against this terrible practice.

"I had this image in my mind for years and years," he said.

Joe Green, who has seen many talks by present-day Lincolns, said he thought Pressnall was an excellent presenter, very well-educated in the life and literature of the 16th president.

Green said he and his wife, Barbara, attended the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in 2005 in Springfield, which featured about 100 Lincoln look-alikes. A memorable moment of that affair was when the ceremony ended and everyone went outside.

"All of the Lincolns were talking on their cellphones," Green said.

Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com

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