Hickory Hill Plantation

Abraham Lincoln relaxes at Hickory Hill

For Springhouse Magazine

    HICKORY HILL (Dec. 21, 1996) — The legends of Abraham Lincoln staying at John Crenshaw's Hickory Hill Plantation have long been easy to debunk by critics of the Old Slave House. This has been because the legends didn't provide a date, and the dates the Crenshaw descendants and the Sisk Family came up with were incorrect. However, after careful research, the legend appears to be true.
    According to the oral traditions Lincoln spent the night in the southeast bedroom of the house after a political debate in nearby Equality. For decades the Sisks and the Crenshaw descendants assumed it was after the famed Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. One researcher incorrectly used a date of 1848 or 1849. However, the mostly likely date is in September 1840, when Lincoln was in Gallatin County for over a week participating in seven debates in Shawneetown and Equality.
    Three different lines of the Crenshaw family recalled the Lincoln legend as well as a fourth, unrelated family. Comparing the legends, the Crenshaws apparently hosted a party at Hickory Hill in honor of the debaters. Typical of the social traditions of that time Lincoln spent the night at the house, as likely did the other out-of-town guests.
    Current owner George Sisk said his father purchased the bed and the two chairs that are now in the Lincoln bedroom from the Lawler family in 1946. At the time they told his father that the furniture was from the room in which Lincoln stayed. It is possible that Lincoln slept in the bed, even though it was shorter than he was. However, it is just as likely that he spread out in the two chairs that were in the room, or even on the floor. As a single man — he wouldn't be engaged to Mary Todd for another three months — Lincoln would have been sharing the room with other male guests, possibly with his Democratic debate opponents. Politics do make for strange bedfellows.
    In 1840, Lincoln was just a Whig state representative. He debated fellow Rep. John McClernand in Shawneetown and Josiah Lamborn in Equality. Lamborn was running for attorney-general that election. McClernand and Lamborn were both Democratic Party members. The debates were part of a long campaign tour Lincoln and other Whig office holders and leaders made throughout the southern part of the state in 1840, in an effort to organize their party.
    Contrary to critics of the legend who don't want Lincoln at the Old Slave House, it was then, and still is now, not uncommon for politicians of different stripes to attend the same social functions. Before making the campaign trip beginning in August, 1840, Lincoln attended a number of bipartisan social soirees in Springfield. The parties were sponsored by Ninian W. Edwards. It was at one of those parties Lincoln met Mary Todd, the unmarried sister of Edwards' wife.
    If 1840, is the date of the visit, then it is important to remember that Crenshaw was in the process of getting the state to make him the sole lessee of the salt works. He would get the lease later that year in December. He was also trying to get appointed as a director of the state bank in Shawneetown. The March 13, 1841, edition of the Illinois Republican reported that Gov. Thomas Carlin had appointed Crenshaw to the board. Thus, it would have been in Crenshaw's interest to reach out to members of both parties. Earlier that year Crenshaw had also received the contract to start building part of the Shawneetown & Alton Railroad. In 1836, Lincoln had supported the extension of the bank's charter and its recapitalization as well as the internal improvement schemes which included the railroad. In the Henry Eddy Collection in Champaign-Urbana and Springfield there are letters labeling McClernand and Lamborn as being against the bank during the 1840 election. As Lincoln was still a supporter of the bank in 1840, Crenshaw had every reason to cross party lines and possibly discuss the bank situation.
    We don't know much about the party that Lincoln attended, but a notice in the June 25, 1842, issue of the Illinois Republican provides a hint of what parties might have been like at that time: "Barbecue and ball at Mr. and Mrs. McKernan's, five miles beyond Equality. Everything will be 'jam up' on the part of the Chas. McKernan's, a good oration and then the fiddle and the dance. How can any young man keep away. Ticket $2, ball and dinner." Since historians don't know exactly where all the debates took place in Gallatin County, it's even possible that one took place near Hickory Hill earlier in the day before the party.
    From letters of the Crenshaw descendants, we know dances were held on the second floor of the home. Apparently, the front two rooms as well as the front half of the central hallway were divided with movable partitions. For balls the dividers could be opened up to create one large ballroom. At balls where the guests arrived just in time for the dance, they would exit their buggy in the carriage way and go up the back stairs to the second floor. The party-goers also probably checked themselves over in the large mirrors Crenshaw had installed on the walls in the carriage way.
    Of the four families' traditions concerning Lincoln's visit, two come from women who say they danced with Lincoln. Although waltzes had been introduced to the area by 1840, Lincoln and the others likely danced the Virginia Reel which was popular in the area at this time, according to the History of Union County, Kentucky.

The above story was published in the December 1996 issue of Springhouse Magazine.
©1996 Jon Musgrave

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Created Dec. 29, 1996 by Jon Musgrave