by Robert L. Crowe
“The Village of New Salem” is an excerpt of an unpublished manuscript, Me and Mr. Lincoln, by Robert L. Crowe, 2009. The story is told by a man who as a young boy lived in New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830’s.
There isn’t a lot of information about New Salem or about Abraham Lincoln when he was there. That shouldn’t be a surprise. At the time, nobody was writing anything down about what was happening. Everybody just went about their business. During most of the time he was there, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t very important and didn’t match-up to the accomplishments of many of the men who lived there.
I read some of the material that was written by Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon. He had a book published ten years ago, in 1889, a couple of years before he died. A lot of what was in the book, I can’t agree with. For example, the story that Ann Rutledge and Abraham were a romantic couple, even said that they had been engaged. Not true. Much of the time, Ann was engaged to wealthy businessman John McNeil. Anyways … my writing here is not to argue with Mr. Herndon but suffice it to say that Mr. Herndon interviewed people some 50 – 60 years after Lincoln was at New Salem and their memories failed them in a number of regards.
New Salem was a small village but there was a spirit about the place that raised it above the average frontier community. The families who moved there were not just pioneers, they were brave, hardworking and tough … dreamers. They were superb businessmen and tradesmen and farmers. That village was a place of action. In a few short years it became the center of trade for west central Illinois. The settlers were folks who thought “big” and were willing to work hard to achieve their dreams. Rutledge and Cameron built the first mill to grind grain and the first saw mill for cutting timer; Hill built the first “carding” machine to separate sheep wool; there were a few grocery stores to provide the necessities of life as well as a few refinements. In addition to the businessmen and farmers there was a concentration of talented tradesmen. I remember part of the list. There was a medical doctor, Dr. John Allen; Henry Onstot, the cooper who made barrels; Martin Waddell, the hatter (his rabbit fur hats sold for 50 cents and his finest coonskin hat for $2); Alexander Ferguson, the shoemaker; Mr. Joshua Miller, the blacksmith, and a variety of others … including Jack Kelso.
Jack Kelso was the happiest man in New Salem. I don’t recall him ever having a job, at least not one that lasted for very long. He would work hard at a few odd jobs, then quit for a while, especially in the summer. He was an expert fisherman and hunter who quoted Shakespeare and the poet, Robert Burns.
The sum total of all this was that New Salem drew a lot of people from a wide area to buy and trade for the goods and services available. It all wasn’t very fancy but it was the only place for a heaping long distance where you could find such a collection.
At times there was talk that New Salem might become the capital of the State of Illinois. However, such a claim might have been made by Denton Offutt who said a lot of things.