Lincoln slept here: St. Clair County played a major role in his trek to the presidency

News-DemocratNovember 5, 2013 

Abraham Lincoln might not have visited St. Clair County as often as he went to Madison County.

But that doesn't mean St. Clair County didn't play a major role in his life and presidency. His relationship with Belleville-based politician, Illinois Supreme Court judge and journalist Gustav Koerner was pivotal in helping Lincoln mold his political platform and become the 16th president of the United States.

Koerner, a German immigrant who had much sway over the Belleville area's large German population, met Lincoln on the future president's 1840 trip to Belleville, according to Jack LeChien, a St. Clair County historian and president of the Gustav Koerner House Committee. Koerner's house at 200 Abend St. near downtown Belleville is under restoration by the committee.

Lincoln, a Whig, was in Belleville giving a speech at the old St. Clair County Courthouse on the opposite side of the Public Square from Koerner's law office. Lincoln spoke in support of the candidacy of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison.

Koerner, a Democrat, wasn't impressed with Lincoln's delivery, but he was moved by what he had to say.

The Belleville Advocate newspaper panned Lincoln's speech as "weak, purile and feeble."

Koerner journaled his impressions of Lincoln, writing that "in point of melody of voice, graceful delivery, though not in argument, most all other speakers surpassed him. His exceedingly tall and very angular form made his movements rather awkward.

"Not were his features, when he was not animated, pleasant owing to his high cheek bones. His complexion had no roseate hue of health, but was rather bilious, and when not speaking, his face seemed to be overshadowed by melancholy. I observed him closely, thought I saw a good deal of intellect in him while his looks were genial and kind."

Despite their opposing political affiliations, Lincoln and Koerner developed respect for each other throughout the late 1840s when Lincoln tried numerous cases in front of Koerner and the other judges of the Illinois Supreme Court.

On Oct. 18, 1856, Lincoln, who had switched his political allegience to the new Republican Party, again came to Belleville, this time to speak on behalf of political candidate John Fremont. Fremont was the first Republican to run for president of the United States. He lost to Democrat James Buchanan.

According to LeChien, Lincoln was picked up at the train station on West A Street and became the star attraction in a parade around the public square.

Lincoln gave a speech from the balcony of the John Scheel home at 208 S. Illinois St., the site of the current downtown YMCA. Scheel, an influential politician and businessman, invited Lincoln to stay at his home. The speech site was only a couple of blocks down the road -- which would become Lincoln Street -- from Koerner's home.

"Of course, they were friends, so it would make sense that Lincoln might come to Koerner's house to rest or to visit," LeChien said. "But we have no proof of that happening."

Brian Keller, president of the O'Fallon Historical Society, said it's almost impossible to prove whether Lincoln caught a few winks on the sofa here or there. But stories abound that Lincoln stayed here or there when he was in the area.

Operators of the Dandy Inn, in Fairview Heights near the city's border with O'Fallon, claim on the back of their menus that Lincoln might have stayed at the site in 1856.

"It was originally Henry Becherer's Ridge Prairie Saloon built about 1850," Keller said. "Back then the immediate area was called Crossroads because it was at an intersection on the old St. Louis-Vincennes stage route.

"The saloon was also a general store, trading post, meat market, etc.," Keller said. "And you could get a bite to eat there. The visit may have happened in October 1856.''

The owner of a farmhouse at 4125 Lebanon Ave. in Shiloh claimed four years ago when the house was for sale that Lincoln spent the night there. Property records about the home are unclear. It's listed as being built in 1900. But Keller said there is reason to believe the house was actually built in the 1850s and that it was later expanded. Either way, he's doubtful that Lincoln spent the night there.

"Everybody, it seems, wants to be able to say that Lincoln slept or ate at their house," Keller said. "But we don't have any records that Lincoln ever stayed in O'Fallon or Shiloh."

Lincoln was also reported to have attended a dinner party at a downtown house in Belleville during his 1856 stay.

Norma Walker, spokeswoman for the St. Clair County Historical Society, said one of her favorite items donated to the organization's museum is known as "the glass that Lincoln didn't drink out of."

Walker said that during a well-documented visit to Belleville the future president was offered a glass of wine at dinner. Honest Abe politely declined on the grounds that he didn't drink alcohol. But the party throwers kept the glass anyway.

The most famous artifact from Lincon's 1856 visit is the Scheel balcony from which he spoke.

On it he delivered a speech about the need to abolish slavery and the dangers of letting industry pull political strings. When Scheel's house was torn down in 1920 to make room for Central Junior High School Belleville, butcher Dominic Kronenberger salvaged the balcony and attached it to his house, which was where Cathedral Grade School now stands.

The Aufdenspring family took possession of the balcony when Kronenberger's home was razed in 1955. The balcony -- and the glass intended for Lincoln but left unused -- are both at the St. Clair County Historical Society's museum at 701 E. Washington St. in Belleville.

After he left town in 1856, Lincoln isn't believed to have returned to Belleville. But that wasn't the end of his relationship with Koerner.

According to LeChien, when Lincoln ran for president in 1860, Koerner knew there were political deals to be made to get Lincoln on the ballot. There was some sentiment among Republicans, in a time of political upheaval, to back a Democrat and avoid the political mess.

"Koerner said no," LeChien said. "They came up with the slogan 'We must make them understand Lincoln is our man.'"

Koerner told Lincoln to stay home from the Republican convention to keep above the fray while his supporters twisted arms and made deals to finally get the support Lincoln needed to be on the ballot.

After Lincoln was elected president, Koerner and Lincoln stayed in touch through letters. While the president didn't come back to Belleville, Koerner's wife believed she still felt his presence in the area.

On the night Lincoln was assassinated Koerner's bride, Maria, claimed she heard a shot in the street outside their home. LeChein said there was no convincing Maria Koerner that she didn't witness the sound of Lincoln being shot to death.

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