Lincoln Museum on Rebel Ground
If you'd lived in Harrogate, Tennessee, during the Civil War, your President would've been Jefferson Davis, not Abraham Lincoln. Times have changed since then, but it's still a shock to find the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum here, an oasis of Abe in the backwoods of Dixie.
Its collection of Lincolnabilia, among the largest in the world, began in 1897 when a group of Civil War vets founded Lincoln Memorial University in town. Eighty years passed before the collection finally became a museum, when its building was bankrolled by Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"This was one of his last projects in life," said Tom Mackie, the museum's director. "You'd be surprised how many folks are Lincoln fans." The Colonel himself donated the 15-foot-tall statue of "Lincoln, the Hoosier Youth" that dominates the museum's atrium.
Some of the museum's more noteworthy artifacts got here by wayward routes. A fancy cupboard made by Lincoln's carpenter dad was saved when it supposedly fell off the back of the Lincoln family wagon. The bed in which Lincoln spent his 52nd birthday -- a fact noted in an accompanying plaque -- used to be in the President's House at the University. "If you were a big donor, you got to sleep in the bed," said Tom.
Lincoln's walking stick of death was found at his Ford's Theatre murder scene by an actor, who sold it for $40 in groceries. The grocer's son later donated it to the University (This story reminded us of another unique Lincoln artifact reportedly discovered in Ford's Theatre after the assassination).
Tom said that visitors sometimes tell him their theories of where Lincoln was really born or who really killed him, but he's yet to hear one that's changed his mind. One of the museum's exhibits is a poster from The Lincoln Conspiracy, a 1977 film that Tom endorsed as the worst Lincoln movie ever made.
Despite these treasures, the museum's real strength -- at least for casual gawkers -- is in its collection of Lincoln art, ranging from tourist souvenirs to classy bronzes to pop culture tributes. There's a wax dummy Lincoln from a dime museum, a wooden cigar store Lincoln from Coney Island, a blocky Socialist Realist Lincoln by an unidentified sculptor.
Original, framed paintings by Louis Bonhajo, later mass produced and hung in schools, show youthful Lincoln chopping rails and courting Ann Rutledge, his rumored true love, who looks as perfect as a 1930s movie star. A huge illustration by John Sartain, Abraham Lincoln, The Martyr Victorious, depicts a post-assassination apotheosis: Washington welcoming Lincoln to heaven surrounded by angels with olive branches and harps.
The museum exhibits a number of 1930s dioramas salvaged from Chicago's defunct Lincoln Memorial Hall. Lincoln can be seen, in forced perspective miniature, pondering slaves from the deck of a riverboat; greeted by a grateful black man in Richmond; and pardoning the son of a weeping Civil War mom.
An entire wall of the museum is devoted to the artwork of Harry Wood, so obsessed with Lincoln's face that he painted it hundreds of times over a four-decade span. Abe is portrayed as Jesus, a sad clown, Moses, Columbus, a Picasso head, an Easter Island head, Superman, and a "freakout" Abe that we'd guess was painted in the mind-expanding 1960s.
"As big as Washington is, he can't compete with Lincoln," said Tom, ranking the Presidents by image popularity. "Washington is our hero, but Lincoln is us. There's frontier Lincoln, cartoon Lincoln, casual Lincoln, reading Lincoln, Roman Lincoln, Zeus Lincoln. It's almost to the point of, 'You gotta be kidding me.'"
Lincoln as a poster boy for diversity? That was probably never on his presidential to-do list, but the role suits him well, even if it's sometimes a little awkward in a stovepipe hat.