World's Largest Lincoln Statue
After this article was written, the resort surrounding the Lincoln statue closed, and the property was gated. It has since been sold to a local developer who hopes to re-open the statue to the public in 2014.
Abraham Lincoln was a giant among U.S. Presidents. In Ashmore, Illinois, he's a giant among the trees.
The World's Tallest Lincoln was created in 1968 to mark the 110th anniversary of a Lincoln-Douglas debate in nearby Charleston. He was built skinny, reportedly because he had to be driven hundreds of miles from his assembly point in St. Paul, Minnesota, and "wide load" trucking restrictions compelled his creator to think thin.
From the beginning, Skyscraper Lincoln had problems. He arrived too late for the 110th anniversary, and a proposed Abraham Lincoln Memorial Park that was supposed to be built around him failed to materialize. "That statue stood out there in the middle of a field for years," recalled David Kirsch, operations officer for Lincoln Springs Resort. "And there were definitely bullet holes in it."
In 1978 Abe was trucked three miles east to Ashmore. He was set up in a private campground, at the bottom of a wooded hollow. It's a strange place for a giant statue, possibly a "no free peeks" zone that forced people to pay to see all of Abe. Only his arm and face can be glimpsed from the road, above the treetops.
The campground closed in 1996 and Abe was again abandoned, eventually earning our title of the World's Ugliest Lincoln as well as the Tallest. Forlorn and forgotten, his paint flaking, Abe stood with his upraised index finger blown off (either by lightning or shotgun) and his cheek ventilated by a large-caliber bullet hole. "There were birds and all kinds of animals living inside it," Kirsch said. "Luckily, the owner saved the finger and put it in a basement of one of the buildings."
Kirsch's company bought the property in 2002, and in 2004 Abe's restoration began. Lincoln was repaired where he stood, with the aid of technicians on telescopic lifts (coincidentally, Abe is surrounded by lifts elsewhere in Illinois). The bullet holes were patched; spots and wrinkles were removed. Abe was given a fresh coat of paint, and his finger was hauled out of the basement, hoisted to the summit, and reattached.
The World's Tallest Lincoln is now the shiny-clean symbol the Lincoln Springs Resort, whose cartoon mascot is a grinning, running Abe with the same upraised finger. "Honest fun for everyone!" he yells. Visitors can visit him for free.
The hollow where Abe stands has been named "Abe's Garden" and is dotted with a dozen new chainsaw Lincoln sculptures carved by an artist named Bill Monken. "I have tried to create these statues so no one else would have one like them," Bill wrote in a handout that's available at the Garden.
He has succeeded. The statues depict Abe at various ages, but they are chiseled, exaggerated caricatures -- hunchbacked, twisted, and troll-like, and most of them sport miserable expressions. They are far grimmer than the big statue, and the big statue has never been cheerful.
"We had a child at the restaurant the other day," Kirsch said, "and we had to reassure her that the big Abe was not going to come inside. She was just terrified of it."
"For the most part," Kirsch added, diplomatically, "he is beloved by young and old alike."
Just how tall is the World's Tallest Lincoln?
Kirsch wouldn't say, not wanting to reveal a specific height that could then be topped by a rival. Our notes tell us that Abe is 72 feet tall, although we can't recall how we know this. Suffice to say that Abe is always further away than he appears -- because he's huge, skyscraper tall -- and all of it, from his boot heel to the top of his head, is Lincoln. There's no stovepipe hat, no cheap elevation.
Big Abe can reportedly withstand 140 mph winds. Bullets cannot bring him down. He might still be around for the Lincoln-Douglas 220th anniversary. He stands, his face impassive, his finger pointing heavenward, his left hand clutching an accordion-folded paper of some important document. He seems awkwardly out of place, just like the real Abraham Lincoln.
We asked Kirsch if anyone had ever gotten married at the feet of Abe. To our surprise Kirsch answered yes, "but I don't know if the fianc was too keen on the idea," Kirsch said. "All that honesty."