Piece of a Lincoln favorite to live on

By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON ó During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln used to find refuge under the cool canopy of thick, drooping branches of a 50-foot copper beech tree near the cottage known as his summer White House.

Lincoln liked to read, play with his son, Tad, and escape the wartime pressures of Washington beneath its comforting branches.

The 260-year-old tree played a role in President Clintonís decision to designate the cottage and grounds a national monument in July 2000.

But the tree, recently declared dead by arborists, is scheduled to be cut down later this month.

"Sadly, trees donít live forever," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "But weíre taking steps to ensure that this majestic tree will leave behind an enduring, living legacy."

In a chilly outdoor ceremony on Lincolnís birthday, Lura Lynn Ryan, the wife of Gov. George Ryan, Tuesday accepted a sprout that will be nurtured at a federal arboretum for several years until it can be safely planted in the Springfield area.

"I assure you this sapling will be well-tended," said Ryan, a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. She and U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, one of the commissionís co-chairs, will decide where to plant the historic treeís progeny.

Lincoln aficionados attribute a resilient spirit to the tree that was Lincolnís old haunt. Although copper beech trees donít usually do so, this oneís low branches stretched to the ground and developed their own root system.

"Metaphorically speaking, this "old soldierí knew it was in trouble and was trying to generate new growth," said Ralph Robbins, vice president of SavATree, whoís been caring for the tree for the past year.

While the treeís death was probably hastened by a fungus infection and drought, "old age probably had a lot to do with it," Robbins said.

The tree will be cut back to about 15 feet to serve as support for the low branches, or "whips." The exact age of the tree wonít be known until the tree is taken down.

"This was the last living thing that Lincoln ever touched," said Lincoln historian Harold Holzer. "It outlived him by 137 years."

Holzer found irony in the treeís honored place in Lincoln history, since Lincolnís early reputation "was doing violence to trees" as a railsplitter.

And, he noted that in Lincolnís era, politiciansí "stump" speeches were, quite literally, delivered from tree stumps.

The tree and cottage are on the grounds of the U.S. Soldiersí and Airmenís Home, about three miles from the White House. From its hillside location, Lincoln monitored Civil War troop movements and became the only American president to come under fire during wartime.

It was at the three-story Early Gothic Revival-style cottage that Lincoln wrote his final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The 14-room cottage, built in 1843, is being restored at an estimated cost of $8 million and eventually will be open to the public.

Historians estimate Lincoln spent about one-fourth of his presidency at the cottage. The Lincolns packed up their personal belongings and lived each year from early June until late October. Lincoln regularly rode to the White House by horseback.

On one trip in 1864, gunmen fired on him. He raced back to the cottage, arriving without his hat. Some thought he was joking when he explained how he lost it. But soldiers later retrieved the hat with a bullet hole in it.

Research into the history of the cottage also reveals insights into the Lincolnsí family life.

According to one soldierís written account, he was embarrassed when he went to deliver a message to Lincoln during the night. When he entered Lincolnís bedroom, he discovered Lincolnís wife, Mary, was in his bed. At the White House, the couple kept separate bedrooms, as did many couples of that era, Holzer said.

William Dupont, architect for the National Trust, said the cottageís history opens up "the whole personal side of Lincoln as a father and as a husband that is not easily accessed."

Moe called the cottage "probably the most important unknown Lincoln site in America."

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© Copyright 2002, Copley News Service