November 6, 2010

Lincoln Oak Freeport, Illinois 1912 and Lost History

On August 27 of 1858 the town of Freeport, Illinois was the site for the second of the famous Lincoln and Douglas debates. The drawbacks of wind and rain did not prevent a crowd of more than 15,000 hurry to the grove north of the Brewster Hotel which stood on the corner of then Stephenson and Mechanic Streets.

The scene must have been mayhem - the entire country was in turmoil over the escalating issues on slavery in the South. "After dinner the crowd hurried to a grove near the hotel, where the speakers' stand and the seats for listeners has been arranged. Here also were confusion and disorder. They have a wretched way in Illinois of leaving the platform unguarded and exposed to the forcible entry of the mob, who seize upon it an hour or so before the notabilities arrive, and turn a deaf ear to all urgent appeals to evacuation."

"Lincoln Oak"
Over the next half century, Freeport grew with many fine homes sprouting along avenues and other streets carved from the famed grove and debate site. The townspeople and residents of Freeport were careful to preserve a tree which came to be known as the "Lincoln Oak" A Stately Victorian home was built by Mr. R. Johnson who owned Johnson Brothers Company and the manufacturer of the "Tiger" adjustable ratchet cylinder wrench and the Johnson Automatic Coupler. 

In the front of the home and nearby "Lincoln Oak" is a monument, a giant boulder imported from Wisconsin and reads:

Within this block was held the second joint debate in the senatorial contest between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, August 27, 1858. "I am not for the dissolution of the union under any circumstances." - Douglas. "This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." - Lincoln. Presented by the Freeport Woman's Club, 1903. Dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt, June 8, 1903."

Original Site of the Freeport
Lincoln and Douglas Debate
The tree though, became sickly, "had shed all its leaves and was seemingly dead," and it was feared would be lost. A Mr. P. L. Phelps of Rockford, Illinois was brought in to see if the tree could be saved. After his treatment of the tree, the tree was "in full foliage and looks beautiful again."

The Brewster Hotel was torn down long ago and a park now exists in its place along with two life-size statues of Lincoln and Douglas. Somewhere in the 20th century, the house and "Lincoln Oak" were replaced by a parking lot though the commemorative boulder remained. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Phelps were unsung heroes of a long ago time when history and memory worked together in preserving our American past.  I found this letter and photographs years ago when I lived in the Chicago area. They were in a box destined for the dump, but this is what I do, rescue the past and preserve history.  

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