A Town Divided on Plan for Lincoln Theme Park

Times Staff Writer

This friendly outpost in the cornfields has just one claim to fame. And lately, some folks have been thinking they’re not making all they could of it.

Looking to honor the gangly president who gave Lincoln its good name -- and, not incidentally, to draw tourists by the tens of thousands -- civic boosters have proposed building an Honest Abe theme park, capped off with a towering 30-story statue of the man himself.

They envision animatronic displays of Civil War history; a working model of a 19th century frontier farm; a water park; a toboggan run; miniature golf; bumper cars; and stovepipe hats aplenty.


“It’s a great theme to use,” said Rob Orr, the city’s economic development director. He can just picture the rail-splitting motif on a miniature golf course. “To play off of Lincoln? It’s a natural.”

Not everyone, though, is sold.

Loren Holmes, a barber, delicately suggests that a Lincoln Land might not suit the president’s reputation as a sober man of thought: “It wouldn’t do him any good, I don’t imagine.”

“Can you just quote my laughter?” asked Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is under construction 30 miles south, in Springfield.

Aiming for a more diplomatic tone, Ron Keller, curator of the local Lincoln College Museum, offered this: “In the attempt to honor someone, sometimes we can go a little overboard.”

He paused. “I’m envisioning kids on a ‘Lincoln Log’ shooting down a roller coaster. No.”

Invoking images of Disneyland, the project’s backers promise to build a dignified family attraction, not a kitschy carnival. “They would do it right,” said Art Schutte, a theme park developer out of Cincinnati. He has pledged to raise enough money to build the park if the city can come up with the first $20 million from a corporate sponsor.

“There would be nothing degrading about this,” Schutte said. “It’s a great idea. It’s called edu-tainment.”

The city hasn’t settled on any specifics for the park. The possibilities, though, are endless. Union and Confederacy bumper cars? Robert E. Lee’s Last (souvenir) Stand? A Hallowed Ground mini-golf course? “Scream on the roller coaster of Black Dog depression!” suggested an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, about 100 miles southwest of Lincoln. “Give the last full measure of devotion on the Better Angels of our Nature thrill ride!”

It’s enough to make Alderman Pat Madigan shudder. “I’m not a historical zealot. But this would make Lincoln, the town and the man, into a freak show,” he said.

He’s the only City Council member to oppose the concept, however. And many in town say they just can’t figure out how an enormous statue and fun rides would demean the 16th president of the United States.

“After all these years?” asked Roberta Marten, a factory worker.

“Any acknowledgment of a president is a good thing,” said Marsha Sarmiento, who manages the local optometry office. “And anything they can do to help this poor little community, they should, because it’s hurting,”

Indeed, it’s the lure of tourist dollars that most appeals to the project’s backers.

This town of 15,400 has lost hundreds of jobs in recent years with the closing of a plate-glass factory and a residential home for disabled adults. Two nearby prisons are now the top employers. Along the rutted downtown streets, a few property owners have restored century-old brick buildings. Other storefronts, crumbling into dereliction, have long since been boarded up.

The brightest economic news to hit Lincoln in a long time was the recent opening of an everything-for-a-dollar store on the edge of town.

With all the excitement over the $115-million presidential library in Springfield, local businessman Larry Steffens figured now’s the time to capitalize on his town’s ties to Honest Abe.

The way he looks at it, “there are going to be people in every family who just don’t want to look at any more Lincoln junk” after a few hours gawking at the Gettysburg Address. His pitch: Why not take a break in Lincoln, where you can get your daily dose of history while plunging fourscore and seven feet down the flume ride?

“We want to give families something to do instead of just standing in line looking at Lincoln antiques,” said Steffens, who heads a nonprofit corporation created to push the project.

His first order of business was to find a corporate sponsor to donate $20 million. He can’t imagine that would be a problem. As his promotional video declares: “This is an opportunity to permanently associate your company with the good name of Abraham Lincoln.”

And with an unmistakable landmark, as well. The full-color sculpture of Old Abe would be as tall as the Statue of Liberty; the hat alone would stand 24 feet high and a big rig could park between the shoulders. On this flat-past-forever landscape, such a monument would be visible for miles.

Thressia Usherwood, director of the county tourism bureau, says she would prefer perhaps a more modest sculpture: “We don’t want something that will cause people to giggle when they leave.”

Other skeptics point out that the town of Charleston, Ill., commissioned a 68-foot statue of Abe in 1969 -- and it turned out so grotesquely ugly, teens used it for target practice. “Perhaps that should be a warning to the good people of Lincoln,” said John Y. Simon, a history professor at Southern Illinois University.

But the project’s boosters insist that the statue needs to be huge to attract national -- even global -- attention, and the money that’s sure to follow.

“We’re just trying to emphasize what we have here. And what we have is a town named after Lincoln, by Lincoln,” said Roger Matson, who runs a rent-to-own furniture store.

The name itself, of course, is not unique. Across the nation, there are at least 15 cities named Lincoln. Thirty, if you count the knockoffs, like Lincoln Park, N.J., or Lincolnia, Va.

But this timeworn town boasts a distinction: It was named for Abraham Lincoln before he became president.

Folks here claim no special prescience in naming their town after a skinny guy in a black top hat seven years before his election to the White House. Lincoln simply hung out here a lot, drawing up deeds for $40 lots on a promising stretch of land by the railroad tracks.

Legend has it that two local tycoons drew straws with the 44-year-old attorney for the right to name the tidy new settlement he was laying out. The place could just as easily have been named Gillett, after a cattle rancher famous for his shorthorns.

When Lincoln drew the winning straw, he at first demurred, saying: “I never knew anything named Lincoln that amounted to much.”

On Aug. 27, 1853, however, he christened the new town after himself by squeezing the juice of a watermelon onto the sun-baked dirt.

A life-size watermelon sculpture on the corner of Broadway and Chicago honors that moment. The christening is reenacted every year at Lincoln’s Railsplitting Contest -- two days of festivities to crown the fastest log rollers, firewood splitters and cornhuskers in the heartland.

The Chamber of Commerce tries its best to play up the town’s other ties to Old Abe. A walking tour includes the well Lincoln often drank from; the park where he played a game akin to baseball; and the Rustic Inn, where in 1876 a gang of ruffians hatched an unsuccessful plot to steal the president’s bones from his tomb and hold them for ransom.

To Steffens, such modest historical markers are not enough: “We need something that will draw people from both coasts, and every tourist who comes to America from a foreign country.” In his promotional video, he likens the proposed statue and park to the Eiffel Tower or the Washington Monument.

It’ll be some time, of course, before tourists can flock to a Fun House Divided. The city still needs to complete a feasibility study. Then there’s that matter of securing $20 million.

But few here are willing to write off the project as a pipe dream.

As real estate agent Greg Brinner put it: “All ideas are far-fetched -- until they happen.”