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Abe-le to speculate

An actor portraying Abraham Lincoln entertains the crowd during the opening ceremony for the Naper Homestead in Naperville, Ill., on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. | Corey R. Minkanic~For Sun-Times Media
Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger portrays Abraham Lincoln during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Naper Homestead in 2011.  |   Submitted

If you think of it Wednesday, take a moment to raise a glass, or tip your stovepipe hat, to the nation’s 16th president.

Even though we won’t officially observe the February birth dates of the two most-celebrated early U.S. presidents until next Monday, “hump day” this week is the actual 205th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

A favorite son of the state with a nickname bearing his surname, Lincoln is believed to have visited Naperville. Local lore tells of him giving an improvised speech while standing on the roof of the Pre-Emption House. Now reconstructed and serving as Naper Settlement’s visitor center, the original structure stood on the east side of Main Street, between Chicago and Jackson avenues. No one has yet gathered enough historical evidence to enable the Pre-Emption story to join the history books.

Bryan Ogg, Naper Settlement’s research curator, has spent the past decade looking into what he calls “the Lincoln Question.” So far it remains unanswered.

“I simply cannot find the tell-tale, smoking gun of archival or empirical evidence that Mr. Lincoln ever set foot in Naperville,” Ogg said in an email. “His movements are recorded by experts and fanatics, in some instances down to the minute, throughout his life and none of his paths seem to coordinate with a Naperville visit.”

That’s not to say Lincoln didn’t leave his mark locally. Assorted Naperville businesses bear his name, and Lincoln Junior High School is among five District 203 sixth- through eighth-grade buildings named after U.S. presidents.

Ogg said Lincoln’s most profound influence here was that he inspired some 278 area men from in and around Naperville, “nearly one-fifth of all young men and boys in DuPage County,” to enlist in military service in defense of the Union during the Civil War. The nation’s bloodiest war claimed the lives of 38 of them.

On the record

Lincoln’s political impact, of course, is a clearer matter of historic record. He and early city leader Joseph Naper, who served in the Illinois state legislature at the same time, were among those who demonstrated willingness to cross the partisan aisle, sometimes aiding the cause of those on the other side.

“Naper voted against his Democrat Party to move the Illinois State Capitol from Vandalia to Springfield (1837),” Ogg said. “And Lincoln voted against his Whig Party to pull DuPage County from Cook County (1839).”

Both men, he noted, also served in the Blackhawk War in 1832.

Lincoln and Naper adhered to their local manifestations of the lyceum movement, which promoted volunteer-driven community education and cultural enrichment, as well. Naper belonged to the Naperville Lyceum, an early debate group that worked to boost intellect and character by zeroing in on current issues.

A 28-year-old unknown lawyer at the time, Lincoln delivered one of his most famous speeches to the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum in 1838. The first of many that eventually would be published, the talk was titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” and touched on themes that included slavery, mob violence and the nation’s future.

It seems safe to assert that the pair were kindred spirits who must have met at some point, somewhere.

“It is presumed that the two men knew each other and shared contemporaries but neither seem to have left any mementos of their association,” Ogg said.

Doppelgänger?

Doug Krieger, Naperville’s city manager, finds it plausible that the celebrated historic figures’ paths crossed. Tall and thin, the Lincoln look-alike donned a signature black suit, stovepipe hat and supplemental facial hair to attend the November 2011 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Joseph Naper Homestead interpretive historic site on the southeast corner of Mill Street and Jefferson Avenue. The park has since had a larger-than-life bronze likeness of Naper added to its features.

Krieger, who has no current engagements booked for his Lincoln persona, said he was pleased to see that someone adhering to “the great Naperville yarn-bombing tradition” had swaddled the sculpture’s neck recently with a knitted scarf.

He’s heard the stories of Lincoln passing through town, but cites one of his favorite quotes in reference to the impromptu Pre-Emption House speech.

“It was a Tweet that says, ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,’ and it was signed Abraham Lincoln,” Krieger said.

While a definitive connection between Naperville and the Great Emancipator remains elusive, Ogg said both have abundant and important stories connected to them that bear repetition.

“Detaching Lincoln from Naperville in the historical record will not diminish the importance of either.”

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