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Galena forsakes favored son -- for one day



OK, President Grant. We get it. You lived here.
But Abraham Lincoln slept here.
For one day -- and one day only, mind you -- Gen. Ulysses S. Grant might feel a bit brushed off by the tourist town that typically touts the former president as its top resident.
"Well, of course, we usually focus on General Grant," said Colleen Yonda, assistant director at the Galena History Museum.
Not today, though.
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Four score and . . . wait, that's not right. The appropriate number here is 200.
Two hundred years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was born in a state he described as "wild, with many bears and other wild animals."
As an adult, he abandoned his birth state of Kentucky and sought another state to call home.
Ever since he moved to Illinois in 1831, the state known as "the land of Lincoln" has celebrated its connection to the man who guided the nation through civil war, freed an entire race of people and pushed fashion to the brink with his bold hat choices.
And today, on what would have been his 200th birthday, the entire state is pausing to pay homage to its greatest citizen.
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No, really. Lincoln did sleep here. At least, most historians assume he stayed overnight at the DeSoto House Hotel in Galena.
It only makes sense, said Galena History Museum director Nancy Breed. After all, the then-novice politician did address the city from the hotel's balcony on July 23, 1856, rousing citizens with his passionate rhetoric that "all this talk about assimilation of the Union is humbug, nothing but folly."
He had to sleep somewhere, Breed said, and there was as good as any. Or he might have roomed in a private residence. Still, the main point is he walked Galena's streets, peeking into the same stores thousands of tourists visit each year.
"Presidents are exalted figures, or at least most of them are. And Lincoln really stands out for us, not just because he is from Illinois, but because of the things he accomplished," Breed said. "And he was here. He slept here. Or at least, we can assume he slept here."
Even more significant for Jo Daviess County is that Lincoln visited the area not once, but twice.
On June 24, 1832, a young captain rode to the rescue of a settlers' fort in Elizabeth. His mission: Save the fort from the notorious Chief Blackhawk's attack. His success ration: Not so high.
Lincoln arrived one day after the battle to find the fort's residents safe, having trounced the Indians.
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Ryan Rigdon thinks President Lincoln was "really cool."
The East Dubuque eighth-grader wanted a more active role in today's celebration, so this morning at 9:30 a.m. he read a portion of the Gettysburg Address over the school's speaker system. By doing so, he was aiming to make history of his own.
Across Illinois, students recited Lincoln's famous speech, trying to beat the Guinness Book of World Records entry for most people reading aloud simultaneously. (The record is 223,363.)
"I feel a little privileged to be here from Illinois, since he's from here," Rigdon said.
Other schools share this pride.
Kindergartners through sixth-graders at the River Ridge School District in Hanover started the day by singing "Happy Birthday" to Lincoln. Cafeteria cooks baked sheet cake for the event, which also includes skits, songs and other demonstrations.
"I think the kids have been really excited about this," said Martha Purchis, a Title I teacher. "They're really getting into it."
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Perhaps nobody will get into the day more than Kevin Koester, of Lancaster, Wis.
It's like looking at a penny. The 54-year-old has the beard, the nose, even the top hat.
For five years, he has eked out a living as a full-time Lincoln impersonator.
The West Point graduate turned Peace Corps volunteer first noticed the similarity while preparing for a costume party in Africa.
"I looked into the mirror and said, 'You know, I think I have the makings of an Abraham Lincoln here,'" he said.
Now he makes about 40 appearances annually to area schools and groups.
"It's amazing," he said. "You put on the costume, and it just does something to a person. I feel like I know him."
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The rest of Lincoln's life is, as they say, history.
Lincoln maintained his relationship with Galena until his death, even inviting General Grant to attend the theatre performance where John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president. Grant declined, saying he wanted to visit his children in New York.
Grant later ascended to the nation's highest position, making Galena proud. Which is why tomorrow the town will subtly close the curtain on Lincoln and once again brag about its hometown hero.
"He'll always be special to us," Yonda said.


(Photo Credit: Civil War Parlor)
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