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Dateline Dixon: Can Dixon really sell Lincoln?

Small town Pittsfield may hold the answer

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

How far will you travel to see the house where Abraham Lincoln slept? Or crazier yet, a public parking lot with a sign reading “Lincoln slept here?”

Dixon officials met Tuesday to discuss a regional branding strategy to capitalize on the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

Seemingly every other Illinois town boasts its own statue, layover or connection to Lincoln, and Dixon and its surrounding communities figure to have competition to attract visitors.

While that endeavor may seem far-reaching, given Lincoln visited Dixon only twice, I’ll share a story of my own unexpected Lincoln-chasing experience that could give some perspective.

My initial question refers to a “Looking for Lincoln” sign in Ottawa, the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. For some reason or another, the house where Lincoln stayed during the debate was torn down, but that didn’t stop Ottawa from putting up the marker.

Growing up in Streator and then moving to Ottawa, I always had my fair share of jokes about that parking lot where Lincoln slept.

“Couldn’t Lincoln afford a hotel?” “Where in the world did he go to the bathroom there?” And why in the world would Ottawa direct Lincoln enthusiasts to a parking lot with a sign that has a photo of that old site you can view just as well online from your home?

I had to travel to Pittsfield in southwestern Illinois before I gave a hoot about a Lincoln sign.

My wife, Julie, and I did not go there looking for Lincoln; we happened to stay at a hotel where Lincoln and Stephen Douglas casually met, mostly because it sounded like a nice place. We were not Lincoln enthusiasts.

With that said, by the end of our stay, we were driving around the Pike County seat of 4,211 with our radios tuned into the “Talking Houses” tour.

What sucked us in?

A good story.

On a whim, we started reading the historical signs in Pittsfield. They all told stories.

Our personal favorite was one in front of the Daniel Gilmer home and law office, now a bank. The house doesn’t exist anymore.

One day Gilmer’s 9-year-old daughter Lizzie erected a makeshift tollgate and on Oct. 1, 1858, she charged Lincoln to attend a luncheon her mother had prepared for him, his friends and leading political supporters. Lizzie’s father later took her aside for a severe scolding for asking their special guest for a toll fee.

We kept going house to house to hear anecdotal stories like that.

Ironically, my wife and I returned home to the site of the first Lincoln and Douglas debate, a historically significant event, and the “parking lot where he slept,” and shared several of Lincoln’s Pittsfield stories, still not knowing much of the Ottawa history.

That’s the power of a good story. Much like Spielberg, when tackling the historical topic of Lincoln, Dixon must be able to tell its own Lincoln stories or engage people to be successful. A mere marker won’t do the trick.

Stop by

Dateline Dixon is a weekly column discussing whatever Dixon is discussing.

Derek Barichello has “office hours” from 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesday at Books on First, 202 W. First St. Feel free to stop to ask questions, suggest story ideas, or just chat.

He also can be reached at dbarichello@saukvalley.com or 800-798-4085, ext. 526.

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