Friday, March 1, 2013

President Lincoln artifacts at Benton County Museum

Inch by inch, row by row, it’s a joy to see our artifact collections grow.  Every day we work on merging the Horner Museum artifacts with the Benton County Museum collections.  The artifacts inspire a good deal of research and many exciting conversations. We only have a small number of artifacts on display at any given time.  Our artifacts related to President Lincoln are not currently on display, so for now we hope you'll enjoy this blog posting.

This morning we photographed some cloth braid that decorated President Abraham Lincoln’s burial service.  The donor’s father worked for the plumbing, heating and sheet metal company that opened the lead lining around Lincoln’s wood coffin in 1901 when they were confirming the location of President Lincoln’s remains. When the donor gave the items to the Horner Museum, he left this written account:

by Charles L. Willey, Jr.

“The Horner Museum is displaying some Abraham Lincoln relics, placed there by Charles L., Jr. and Earl C. Willey, received by them recently from their father, C.L. Willey, of Southern Oregon, who was the last person to look upon the martyr president.  The following story, taken from Hearst’s Chicago American, of September 28, 1901, gives an account of the opening of the casket:

‘Of the millions of Americans who would have been glad of the opportunity of looking at the features of Abraham Lincoln, only eighteen were so privileged at the occasion of the twelfth reburial of the body of the first martyr president.

‘For the last time the eyes of men have rested upon the body of the great emancipator.  His casket, now firmly imbedded in walls of concrete and masonry, will rest until time shall have completed its work of effacement.

‘The coffin was removed by the trustees of the Lincoln Monument Association and the body exposed to view for the purpose of identification.  The casket has been opened several times.  The reason assigned has always been the same – that of identification.  Perhaps the oft repeated rumors that the body of Mr. Lincoln had been stolen by ghouls was the real reason.  Certainly the body of no other public man has ever been disturbed so often.

‘Only the trustees and two mechanics who opened the coffin viewed the body.  The utmost precaution was taken to prevent a camera snap shot.  Newspaper reporters were barred, and the doors and windows securely fastened.  Those who saw the body of Mr. Lincoln say his features were easily recognizable.’

Mr. Willey and Mr. Leon P. Hopkins were the mechanics who opened and closed the casket and deposited it in cement, never again to be disturbed. The collection in the Horner Museum consists of the knife used in opening the casket, several small pieces of the casket itself, and gold and silver braid which adorned the bier, a photograph of the two mechanics, and the clipping from the Chicago American giving the story quoted above.  These articles are on display in the entrance way of the Museum, together with steel engravings and other pictures of Mr. Lincoln and a rail that was split by him, secured many years ago by one of the early presidents of the College.” 

The article mentions the hand-split fence rail which is also in our museum collection.  Our records indicate that “in 1830, when Lincoln was 21 years of age, he moved with his parents to Decatur, Illinois.  In building a fence around the new property, it was necessary for Lincoln to split the rails.  Dr. John M. Bloss, second president of Oregon State College, obtained the rail at the suggestion of Benjamin Harrison, ex-President of the United States.  The two had been close friends.  Harrison thought that one of the Lincoln rails should be in every institution of higher learning in the country, as a reminder to future generations of the rail-splitting president.  President Bloss went to the old Lincoln home near Decatur and obtained the rail.  He took particular pains to make sure it was genuine.  That was in the 1890s.  The rail recalls the life-long friendship of President Lincoln and ‘Jerry’ Clark, who came west to establish Alsea Valley on the map of Oregon.  He endeavored to persuade Lincoln to accept the appointment as territorial governor of Oregon, but Mrs. Lincoln discouraged it.”