- Historic Sites
Spoon River Revisited
An artist recalls his Midwestern home town and the poet who made it famous
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
But the war changed everything. When I was eleven, I carried a big flag at the head of the procession that escorted the first group of drafted boys from the courthouse square to the C. & A. depot. Papa Smoot was chairman of the draft board. Down at the Ring Barn, where Ed Shipp’s circus had its winter quarters, a little girl in spangled tights sang, “ How’re you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree? ” A new, flag-waving patriotism swept the country, and this spirit seized upon the image of Lincoln as its symbol. Irving Bachelier, who was writing A Man for the Ages , came to Petersburg and stayed at my friend Hubert’s house and strolled through town and over New Salem hill in search of inspiration. A group of “Boosters” led by Judge Nelson, Hubert’s father, organized the Lincoln League for the purpose of restoring the village of New Salem, where Abe Lincoln—and Ann Rutledge—had lived. Papa regarded this as foolishness, and the Lincoln League languished for lack of local support.
Ann Rutledge’s coffin had been moved from the rural Concord cemetery and brought to the Oakland Cemetery at Petersburg in 1890 (Papa said there wasn’t anything in her coffin but a handful of dust and some buttons), and in 1921 the little stone at the head of her new grave, just across the path from Grandfather Laning’s granite obelisk, was replaced by a large square block on which was carved Edgar Lee’s poem:
I expected a terrible explosion, but none came. Things were changing, even in Petersburg. William Randolph Hears! bought the New Salem hill and gave it to the state of Illinois—on the condition that the state complete the reconstruction of the pioneer village and make it a state park. This development reached the Chicago Tribune and the Tribune reached Papa Smoot. His reading had become restricted to the Bible and the Chicago Tribune (he was, in both cases, a cover-to-cover man), and when I asked him why, he told me, “Everything else is a matter of opinion.” The next thing I knew, he was taking visitors to New Salem, and to Oakland Cemetery, too, and he was pointing to these things with pride. And I thought that if Edgar Lee were to come to the door now, Papa would welcome him.
But the explosion did come at last. It came from Edgar Lee. Far away in New York he published a new book, Lincoln—the Man . In it he wrote that Lincoln had always been an opportunist politician and that furthermore there had never been any romance between Abe and Ann, that this story was nothing but a fond delusion of Herndon’s.”…Lincoln had no lasting love, if any love, for Ann Rutledge,” he wrote. I thought when I read this that it was no more than we had always known. Uncle Harold had long since told us that Aunt Parthena Nance Hill, the last survivor of New Salem, had often told him that while Abe and Ann had known each other, there was certainly no love on either side. But it was awful for Papa Smoot. He got to his feet, with some difficulty now, and he denounced Edgar Lee just the way he used to. “That son of a bitch! If he came to this door and knocked, I wouldn’t let him in the house!” And he spat violently into the spittoon.