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Tinsley tale emerges
Dry goods store re-creation unveils facts

Published Monday, August 07, 2006

During the 1840s, when Abraham Lincoln and William Herndon practiced law at Sixth and Adams streets, Lincoln probably walked often through Seth Tinsley’s dry goods store on the first floor before going up, two steps at a time, to his own offices.

Tinsley owned the building, renting space to the two lawyers and others. He also ran a fat-rendering business, supplying Springfield with lard. At the time, the Tinsley name held its own, comparable to that of the entrepreneurial Bunns.

Eventually, however, Seth Tinsley fell into oblivion. Today, despite Tinsley’s diverse business interests in the mid-1800s and his proximity to Lincoln as a historical figure, little is known about the man. Vague rumors passed down through generations suggest he died in a fire.

But, as part of an ongoing project to recreate Tinsley’s dry goods store at the Lincoln-Herndon site, a clearer portrait of the man is beginning to emerge.

For one thing, Tinsley didn’t perish in a fire but died of kidney failure, according to Kathleen Thomas, the researcher hired to find out as much as possible about Tinsley and his store.

Thomas, a former film and humanities professor at Florida State and Florida A&M universities, moved to Springfield about six years ago. She briefly worked as a tour guide at the Old State Capitol before leaving to teach at Lincoln Land Community College.

Last year, the Old State Capitol Historic Site manager, Justin Blandford, who also manages the Lincoln-Herndon site as well as Vachel Lindsay’s home for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, asked Thomas to return to IHPA on contract and lead the Tinsley research.

The job has led Thomas on a fascinating trail to the great-great granddaughter of Tinsley’s sister in Macomb and to the Harvard University library, where she found a dissertation on the mercantile climate of Springfield in the 1840s.

In the dissertation and files of Lincoln-era credit reports held at Harvard, Thomas uncovered a man with a lot of potential, but with serious weaknesses that prevented him from realizing them.

“A dashing, industrious, adventurous keen trader,” reads one creditor’s report of Tinsley that Thomas discovered - and which probably affected his ability to secure loans. “Has been drinking to excess latterly and a portion of his time unfit for business and his health is giving way.”

Lincoln was one of several Springfield leaders who wrote such reports for lenders. Thomas hasn’t found a report by Lincoln about Tinsley, but it would have been easy for him to write one, since he worked right above the merchant. There’s a credit report on Lincoln, too, Thomas says. But much of it has been blacked out.

Tinsley, who was married and had 11 children, never seemed to get a handle on all the ventures he was establishing. By the time his wife died in 1867, he must have been in desperate financial shape, since he appears to have signed over the guardianship of his children to relatives shortly after her death. He died the following year.

“He is the great American dream and tragedy,” Thomas says.

Thomas currently is reading through old diaries, looking for more clues to piece other aspects of Tinsley’s life together. Thomas’s next step is to find her holy grail, a photo of Tinsley’s dry goods store, to aid in the store’s reconstruction. That’s a project Blandford wants to have at least under way by 2009, when Springfield and the nation will be celebrating Lincoln’s bicentennial birthday.

The project will not affect the Tinsley Dry Goods gift shop, just south of the law offices on Sixth Street. That store is privately managed, but is owned by IHPA.

Inspired by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Blandford’s goal is to rewrite the presentations at the law offices and the Old State Capitol by telling the stories of the supporting characters in Lincoln’s life and finding ways to make such stories more appealing to younger audiences.

At the law offices, the focus, at least on the first floor, will be Tinsley. The presentation at the Old State Capitol has shifted from an emphasis on artifacts to the rivalry between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

“We learn more about Lincoln by learning more about him from others,” Blandford says.

The Tinsley project won’t come cheaply. Thomas’s salary is funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs as well as from IHPA and the Old State Capitol Foundation.

Blandford also has recruited an archeologist and architect to peel back the years on the first floor at the Lincoln-Herndon site. Currently, the first floor is a somewhat dated exhibit space.

Altogether, Blandford estimates that a high-quality recreation of the Tinsley store could cost as much as $750,000.

“It’s an ambitious goal,” Blandford conceded. “But it’s for ambitious men who worked here.”

Pete Sherman can be contacted at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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