Twenty-six years ago, a group of volunteers in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln became determined to turn an old department store into a showplace for the 16th President.
Supporters pooled resources in 1988 and purchased 20 wax figures of Lincoln and other historical figures from a museum in Springfield, Ill., and chipped in with countless manpower hours – sewing, painting, laying brick and stripping floors – to renovate “Middleton and Marcum” into a showplace for their most famous native son.
Twelve detailed scenes chronicled his life, from his childhood in Hodgenville to his presidency.
The museum opened its doors April 1, 1989. It greeted 510 paying guests in its first three days. Since then, the Lincoln Museum has undergone several expansions, hosted several programs, added a library and art gallery, and continues to draw steady crowds to downtown Hodgenville.
It has welcomed thousands of guests from all 50 states and 65 foreign countries.
At its opening, LaRue County Historian James D. LaRue Jr. predicted the museum would expand and take over Lincoln Square. It’s not that big – yet – but it has a definite presence.
Some of the volunteers were Jayme Burden, Lois Wimsett, W.L. McCoy, Rita Williams, Pete Marcum, Merle Edlin, Opal Dail, Thelma Ford, Damon Talley, Larry Gream, Randy Murray, Ron Sanders, Nancy Sanders, Howard McGuffey, John Varney, Paula Varney and Mary Lois McFelia.
Talley was the chairman of the Lincoln Museum Board of Trustees.
Sanders coordinated fundraising.
Some of the volunteers included personal touches in the museum scenes.
For instance, there are several familiar faces included in the background of “Scene 6,” the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debate.”
New Haven artist Lois Wimsett incorporated the likenesses of a few family members and friends into the scene to add local flavor to the project.
“What I really wanted was something that would entertain me and keep me interested in the project,” she said. “With this, my imagination was running wild. I had a story in my mind for every expression there.”
Wimsett was no stranger to the renown of the 16th President as her family, at that time, owned Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek. The Boyhood Home was transferred in 2001 to the National Park Service.
After volunteering for the project, Wimsett began researching the Lincoln-Douglas debates. She worked more than 150 hours on the scene.
Lincoln, a Republican, and Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas debated the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Afterwards, Lincoln lost the bid for election to the Senate – but gained national recognition. He became the Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 1860.
“I thought this was going to be a two-week deal, but it grew,” she said.
Wimsett originally intended to use only five figures and they were going to be historical figures she had found in books.
“But one day my sister and I were at the museum looking at the space I had to work with and I told her that I would love to put Jeri Burks in the scene,” said Wimsett.
Burks, a history buff, was Wimsett’s friend.
“I put him in because I thought he looked the part with his waxed mustache and beard. And he also loved to argue politics,” she said.
“Lois’ brother took a picture of me and I didn’t know why,” said Burks. “When I found out later that she was going to paint me into the mural, I thought it had to be because of my ‘good looks’.”
After that, she incorporated 13 others.
“I got the idea to use the people that are working on the museum. But a lot of them ended up being family and friends because I was running short of time and they were the only photographs that were made available to me.”
Wimsett said she tried to choose those with “character and humor.”
“There are some of the workers I would have loved to include but I just couldn’t get a photo of them to work from. And I really feel bad about leaving the women out but in those days the women were not seen in public situations like this debate,” she said.
One of her subjects was “Uncle Sam” Edlin.
“He loved to talk politics and he was such a character,” she said.
Her father, Francis Milburn “Boogie” Howard, can be seen through the crook in the Lincoln figure’s arm. He is the only person painted with his eyes closed.
“Dad had a glass eye and it didn’t fit right so he often had one eye closed,” said Wimsett. “But, if dad had been at the Lincoln-Douglas debate he probably would have had both eyes closed, asleep.”
Some of the other workers at the museum joked that she painted him that way because he couldn’t stand seeing a Republican doing such a good job in a debate. Boogie, who died in 1998, was a staunch Democrat.
Randy Murray, who shows up on Lincoln’s left, said Wimsett asked for a photo of him, but he didn’t know why.
“He always gave 150 percent of himself to everyone and that included the work he did on the museum,” said Wimsett.
One figure out of the 14 is strictly out of the history books: Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War.
Wimsett, who used acrylic paint, had no formal training before tackling the background.
“I knew I was doing a good job when I walked into my house one day and had the daylights scared out of me,” she said. “One of the finished figures was leaning against the end of the couch and all you could see was from the nose up. Scared me to death. I thought it was somebody crouching there.”
Instead of painting the crowd on a solid sheet of canvas, Wimsett cut the figures out of masonite. Two boards have five figures each on them and the other four figures are cut individually.
“I wanted to overlap to give the scene some depth.”
One thing Wimsett did not discover until she was almost finished was that the wax figures were made for one particular debate – the Charleston one.
“That’s the one where Douglas was supposed to have timed Lincoln,” she said.
One of Douglas’ hands was in a position where he could have held a watch, she said.
However, it would be difficult for the “Little Giant,” as Douglas was known, to hold a watch now. He has four fingers.
The Douglas ‘ouchy’
A few years ago, during a group tour, an adult decided to “test” Douglas’ pinky – and gave it a twist. It snapped off.
The museum still has the finger – but it’s doubtful it will be repaired, said Museum Director Iris LaRue.
Her thought: It would probably happen again.
“Yes, Mr. Douglas lost his pinky to adult curiosity,” said LaRue. “That is an amputation that (employee) Charlotte (Blair) and I could repair, but we haven’t for one simple reason: nearly every child who visits the museum notices that it’s missing and comes to ask about it. It gives us the opportunity to share with them how the figures are made, how we take care of them, how costly they are, and why people are asked not to touch. The children seem to take great satisfaction when we tell them it was a disobedient grown-up who broke the rule.”
LaRue said several of the wax figures are wired or bolted in place to maintain their poses.
“Next to human tampering, the hardest effects on these are accumulated vibrations,” she added. “Lincoln in the Farmington diorama was literally bounced out of position during some road work and broke his head.”
Another morning, Blair came in early and looked into the museum gallery.
“She nearly had a heart attack as a body lay in the floor of the dimly lit diorama area,” said LaRue. “Thomas Lincoln had tumbled right out of his log cabin. Thomas was lucky – he suffered only a slight bruise. Needless to say, we keep a tight watch on their wires.”
Let’s have some fun
Some of the museum’s volunteers enjoy having a little fun with visitors, said LaRue. Occasionally, one will step into a diorama and remain “perfectly still until the visitor is engrossed in their reading.”
“Then the volunteer will speak – it gets them every time,” said LaRue.
She added, “We don’t do it very often.”
The museum has tried to add more fun things for visitors, old and young alike, she said. A photo cutout of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln allow them to pose as the presidential couple.
“Many of them post their photos on their Facebook pages,” she said.
The museum has sponsored a scavenger hunt during Lincoln Days for the last two years. LaRue called it “one of our best programs.”
“This was created as an additional fun educational opportunity for ages 5-15,” she said, “but we’ve found the adults enjoy it just as much as the kids.”
Staff members of The LaRue County Herald News contributed to this story.