Lincoln's Farm Legacy

Presidential museum exhibit shows rural roots influenced Lincoln's character and political agenda

| November 2009

The average American is expected to change jobs about nine times during a lifetime.

With at least eight job titles to his credit, Abraham Lincoln would be considered an average American today. Well-known in later life as a shrewd lawyer and politician, Lincoln’s early jobs included flatboat operator, merchant, postmaster and surveyor. With less than one year of formal schooling, he furthered his education through each new job. His work ethic, ambition and continual desire for self-improvement undoubtedly stemmed from a trait he shares with many other successful men and women: Abraham Lincoln grew up on a farm.

A new exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill., examines the impact agriculture had on Lincoln’s life, and the role he played in its growth in Illinois and the U.S. How Vast and How Varied a Field: The Agricultural Vision of Abraham Lincoln will be featured in the museum’s Illinois Gallery through August 2010. This is the first of several exhibits showcasing Illinois as the state prepares for a 2018 bicentennial celebration. (The largest artifact in the exhibit is the tractor designed by Joseph Dain, which was particularly challenging to get into the museum. Read about the process in “Two-Ton Tractor Lighter Than Air” or watch the video, “John Deere Dain Tractor Move.” )

Both literally and figuratively, Lincoln truly was a pioneer. During his boyhood in Kentucky and Indiana he had ample firsthand experience with land clearing and subsistence farming. Years later, as a representative in the Illinois legislature, he championed Whig party proposals for roads, canals and railroads, improvements that set the stage for a leadership role in crop production and agricultural manufacturing.

While serving as president, Lincoln’s vision encompassed an entire nation. Lincoln-era legislation directly benefiting agriculture included the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, the Morrill Land Act, the Legal Tender Act and establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Lincoln was also a strong proponent of technology. For instance, he envisioned a steam-powered plow, a concept as futuristic in the 1850s as satellite-guided planting would be 100 years later. Technology has revolutionized farming – and museums. State-of-the-art technology is utilized throughout the Lincoln museum. Upon entering the Illinois Gallery, visitors discover a flat, white panel cut to the shape of Illinois. A kaleidoscope of images illustrate the infrastructure, crop production and population growth that have made Illinois a leading agricultural state.

Nearby audio/visual displays trace farm life from Lincoln’s time to today. Then the focus shifts to the diversity of 21st century Illinois farming. As the nation’s leading producer of pumpkins and among the top 10 producers in several vegetable crops, Illinois is not just a land of corn and soybeans. Perhaps the most insightful and thought-provoking presentation offers glimpses into the lives of Lincoln and his peers during Illinois’ prairie years. Museum employees lend their voices to a presentation that brings to life letters and anecdotes written by and about Lincoln and other settlers. Period photos accompany the poignant and occasionally amusing accounts. Two theaters feature film interviews with prominent figures in Illinois agriculture. Thousands of visitors will instantly recognize the face and voice of WGN broadcaster Orion Samuelson as he shares memories of Depression-era farm life.

Original artifacts in the Lincoln exhibit illustrate farm life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The selection includes a Lincoln-crafted black walnut ox yoke, a grain cradle and farm equipment patent models made by Illinois inventors. Later items include promotional literature from such manufacturers as International Harvester, John Deere and B.F. Avery.