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Reconstruction of Lincoln's New Salem, biographies by Edgar Lee Masters, street fairs in Mattoon are featured     Send a link to a friend

[MARCH 9, 2005]  SPRINGFIELD -- The reconstruction of Lincoln's New Salem, biographies written by Edgar Lee Masters and turn-of-the-century street fairs in Mattoon are featured in the latest issue of the Journal of Illinois History, a scholarly publication about the state's history.

The reconstruction of the log village now known as Lincoln's New Salem, near Petersburg, is the subject of the first article, which is the second of two written about the subject (the first appeared in the autumn 2004 issue).

The site of New Salem, where Abraham Lincoln lived as a young man, became a state park in 1919, at which time the state promised to reconstruct the entire village as a tourist attraction and memorial to Lincoln. In the 1920s the site's popularity grew, but tangible results were not seen until the 1930s, when local boosters were able to successfully get New Deal government involved in reconstructing the 1830s log village.

The focus moved away from presenting New Salem as a recreational park and toward a recreation of the original village. Log buildings were reconstructed on or near original foundations, but in some cases it was not possible to confirm that a particular building was reconstructed in the same configuration, or even the same location, as the original.

Nevertheless, the log village that now operates as Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site is a recreation of an era and is visited by more than half a million people annually.

The article was written by Richard S. Taylor, Ph.D., chief of technical services for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's Historic Sites Division, and Mark L. Johnson, Ph.D., a historian with the agency.

* * *

The cover article features "Spoon River Anthology" author Edgar Lee Masters, who in the early 1930s began work on biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Vachel Lindsay. He used the two biographies to present his views on the state of America, but his studies of the men revealed much more about Masters than they did about Lincoln or Lindsay.

In Masters' opinion, the wrong sort of historical mythmaking, the most popular type of history, was both unpatriotic and dangerous, and the true heroes were "honest" biographers who told the whole, unvarnished truth about their subjects.

Ironically, Masters, who lived as a child just a few miles from the log village where Lincoln lived, detested Lincoln and did not present a balanced view of the 16th president, choosing instead to blame him solely for the Civil War. As he would later do in his biography of fellow poet Vachel Lindsay, Masters suggested that if he had been around to show Lincoln the way, things might have turned out better. The Lindsay biography that Masters wrote ranged from protective to overly flattering to condescending. Both books do serve, however, as interesting snapshots of Masters' evolving mind.

The article was written by Roland R. Cross, current president of the Vachel Lindsay Association in Springfield.

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The city of Mattoon's free street fairs from 1897 to 1903 are the subject of another article, written by Andrew Stupperich, associate curator of collections at the New York State Historical Association and The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

For six years Mattoon's business community held a series of highly successful free street fairs that furthered the community's economic progress and national reputation, but at the same time caused some to question the appropriateness of the entertainment offered there. It became business versus morality, as many from the community objected to the gambling that occurred at the fair, and one outraged eyewitness told a meeting of concerned citizens, "I cannot in this presence tell all we saw; it must suffice to say that some of the women were absolutely naked, excepting a very thin flesh-colored gauze tights, and the attitudes and gestures were all studiedly suggestive."

Moral indignation increased every year as fair organizers tried to mesh the spirit of economic progress with the entertainment value needed to draw people, and money, to their city. Morality and its accompanying political pressure won in the end, as the 1903 Mattoon Free Street Fair was planned but never held.

The Journal of Illinois History is the foremost publication for readers who value documented research on the state's history. The journal features articles, book reviews, essays and bibliographies that have been reviewed by some of the country's leading historians.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency publishes the journal. Subscriptions are $18 per year for four issues. To obtain a sample copy, contact Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Publications Section, 1 Old State Capitol Plaza, Springfield, IL 62701; or call (217) 524-6045.

[Illinois Historic Preservation Agency news release]


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