Two Sites, One Man: Experiencing Lincoln through Historic Sites

By Kevin Bowman

Though I opted out of the eleven-day inaugural train ride from Springfield, IL to Washington D.C., I have had the unique opportunity to physically follow and interpret Abraham Lincoln at two sites, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and President Lincoln’s Cottage,  as he passed from one momentous chapter in his life to the next. By interpreting Lincoln at multiple stages of his life, I feel I have gained insight into Lincoln’s transition from a family man and up-and-coming politician to President of the United States. For those of you considering a visit to President Lincoln’s Cottage know that your experience here will be unique and complimentary to any time you have spent at other Lincoln sites.

From March through November 2009, I worked as a temporary Park Guide at the Lincoln Home in Springfield, IL, operated by the National Park Service,  during their peak tourist season. Suffice to say, being the Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, it was slightly busy. At its busiest, the Lincoln Home sees 80-90 Lincoln Home tours to 1,400-1,500 visitors. It kept us stepping. At the beginning of January, 2010, I began working as a part-time interpreter for President Lincoln’s Cottage, operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit organization, during their slowest month (January),made slower due to the record-breaking snowfall.  To say it has been a change in pace is an understatement. I have thus far seen a daily average of four to six tours of 10-20 visitors. To be sure, many historic sites are completely closed to the public in the winter months, but the Cottage chooses to remain open year-round. Even at the peak of tourism (springtime in D.C.), the Cottage limits visitation to no more than 500 visitors per day, and has to turn visitors away when all the tours are full.  By design, the Cottage experience is meant to be in-depth and intimate, offering visitors a full hour at an even pace.    This is made possible because of its off-the-beaten path location in D.C., a city where most tourists focus their attention on the Smithsonian Museums and major memorials on the National Mall.  President Lincoln’s Cottage strives to keep tours from feeling rushed, and visitors often comment that they appreciated not being “herded” through the site.

I make this comparison not to distinguish importance, but to highlight the uniqueness of President Lincoln’s Cottage. Unlike most other Lincoln historic sites, the Cottage was only recently opened to the public (February 2008) after a 7 year restoration effort. Because it was only recently made available to the public, it is still relatively unknown compared to other Lincoln historic sites. What’s more, the Cottage offers an immersion into Abraham Lincoln’s presidency that is hard to match elsewhere. For instance, at Lincoln Home you get a glimpse of the real Abraham Lincoln, a man who has lived the American ideal and risen from the bottom of the ladder. At the Cottage, you meet this same man, again in the context of where he lived, now responsible for defending that American ideal as President of the United States. In combination, what an amazing story these two sites offer.

In a perfect world with plenty of vacation time, I would suggest taking the time to visit Lincoln Home NHS in Springfield and then travel to Washington, D.C. and visit us at President Lincoln’s Cottage. The dynamic in the two locations is mind-boggling. In visiting these sites back-to-back you will understand and appreciate the unimaginable shift in Abraham Lincoln’s life. Through the stories told here you will see both his strengths and weaknesses as he waded through the years of our nation’s greatest trial. Here you will see a man hoping to escape it all, but rather greeting and gazing upon reminders of his responsibilities and decisions at every turn.

What an honor and privilege it has been to work at these two locations and share the story of this ordinary, yet extraordinary man. I hope you have the opportunity to visit us and other sites to explore the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Bowman is an Historic Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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