Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties
Including Personal Reminiscens of Abraham Lincoln & Peter Cartwright
By T.G. Onstot, 1902

Lincoln's Old Home

Page 79

A correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, writing from Old Salem, two miles south of Petersburg, written in 1884, gives the following interesting communication about Lincoln and his early boyhood home:

I write from a town without a postoffice, a tavern or shop. This is not a house in sight. From the hill where I sit under the shade of three trees whose branches make one, I look out over the Sangamon river and its banks, covered apparently with primeval forests. Around are fields overgrown with weeds and stunted oak. We may say of it as of Troy: "Salem fruit." It was a town of ten or twelve years only; began in 1824 and ended in 1836. Yet in that time had a history which will not die; not so long as it venerates the memory of the noble liberator and martyr, President Abraham Lincoln.

I came here today with a few old settlers as on a pilgrimage to this "Mecca of the soul." W. G. Green, the associate clerk and life friend of Lincoln; Murry Goff, president of the Old Settles' Association; J. G. Strodtmann, county treasurer; Judge John Tice, an old surveyor, a personal friend of Lincoln; and Hobert Hamilton, engineer, made up the party. Judge Tice and Strodtmann went ahead in a buggy to pilot the way. The rest of us followed in a carriage drawn by two mules. We drove up from Petersburg about two miles, passing on the way site of the old mill, run by Lincoln and the remains of the old dam on which his flat-boat lodged when floating down from Sangamontown on the way to New Orleans.

After much debate as to the mode of reaching the old site, we entered an old field through a gate, and, driving up a hill showing a wheel track through tall weeds, we rode over the streets of the old town. The weeds were as high as the horses' backs. Mr. Rice stood up in his buggy, and surveying the landscape, pointed out places where the weeds were lower. "There was Cameron's boarding house, where Lincoln boarded when he kept store for Denton Offit. Near it was George Warburton's store and beyond was Sam Hill's. Over there to the south was the Baptist church and the cemetery alongside."

Mr. Green pointed out the sight of Rutledge's house. "There," said he, "there is where Ann Rutledge lived. Lincoln was engaged to her. Her death almost broke his heart. He told me once that he didn't want to live. He couldn't bear the thought that the rain was falling on her grave and she was sleeping in the cold ground. We had to watch him to keep him from harming himself."

"Right here was Denton Offit's store where Lincoln and I were clerks together." Mr. Green had not been here for forty years, yet recognized the spot.

A small depression showed a former cellar. Out of it grew three trees about fifty feet high, with boughs interlaced, making one in their outline. There was a locust thorn, with leaves like a fine fringe, an elm and a cottonwood. The elm and cottonwood grew out of the stump, as if forming one tree. The dark leaves of the elm and bright broad leaves of the sycamore were intermingled, as from one trunk.

"Behold," said Mr. Green, "an emblem of Union maintained by Lincoln."

Mr. Green pointed out the spot where Lincoln had the Joneses, Greens and others had planned to try Lincoln's wrestling match with the Armstrongs.

"The Clary Grove boys, composed of the Armstrongs, pluck; they challenged him to wrestle. Jack Armstrong, the biggest one, took him in hand and tried to throw him. He tried all sorts of tricks, got foul holds and inside leg hitches, all in vain. Then Lincoln said that if they were for enemies, he was ready; or friends, as it suited them. Big Jack Armstrong slapped him on the back and said, 'Oh, we were only in fun.' It was the son of those very Armstrongs (Duff) that Lincoln defended and saved from conviction of murder by producing the old almanac by which the jury was convinced that the moon did not shine as witnesses had testified. They acquitted the prisoner in five minutes. Duff Armstrong is still living.

"These were among the Armstrongs that wrecked Radford's store. I can tell the story in a few minutes. Radford had a store right over (in the weeds). It was the first put up. A friend told him to look out for Clary Grove boys or they would smash him up. He said he was not afraid. He was a great big fellow. But his friend said, 'they don't come alone. If one can't whip you two or three can; and they will do it.' One day he left the store in charge of his brother with the injunctions that if the Clary Grove boys came not to let them have more than two drinks. All the stores in these days kept liquors to sell, and had a corner for drinking. The store was nicely fitted up and had many things in glass jars nicely labeled. The Clary Grove boys came in and took two drinks. The clerk refused them any more as politely as he could. Then they went behind the counter and helped themselves. The got roaring drunk and went to work to smash everything in the store. The fragments on the floor were an inch deep. They left and went off on their horses whooping and yelling. Coming across a heard of cattle they took the bells from their necks and fastened them to the tails of the leaders and chased them over the country, yelling like mad. Radford heard them, and mounting, rode in hot haste to the store. I had been sent that morning with a grist to Lincoln's mill. It was at the dam you see down there, and I had to pass the store. I saw Radford ride up. His horse was in a lather of foam. He dismounted and looked in on the wreck through the open doors. He was aghast at the spectacle and said, 'I'll sell out this thing to the next man that comes along.'

"I rode up and looking through the window that had been smashed, said, "I'll give you $400 for it."

"Done," said he.

I said, "But I have no money. I must have time."

"How much?"

"Six months."


He drew up a note for $400 at six months and I signed it. I began to think I was stuck. The boys came in, among them Lincoln.

"Cheer up, Billy," said he, "it's a good thing; we will take an inventory."

"No more inventories for me," said I, not knowing what he meant.

He explained that he should take account of the stock to see what was left.

We found it amounted to $1,200. Lincoln and Berry consulted over it and offered me $750 for my bargain. I accepted it, stipulating that they should assume my notes. You see I always wanted to keep up my credit.

Berry was a wild fellow - a gambler; had a fine horse and a splendid saddle and bridle. He turned over the horse as part pay. They gave me $250 in silver. I stowed this under my hunting shirt and rode off at night for home. I had sent my grist to mill by a boy who carried home the story of my purchase. As I rode along I was pleased with my horse, and especially with the ribbon on the bridle. My father was in bed when I arrived. He sang out, "So, Billy, you are a merchant, are ye's? You git along to bed and I'll come and thrash the merchant out of you mighty quick."

"I went to the kindling pile and raked over the coals that had been covered up and made a light. Then I said: 'Pop, have sold out and I got this.' I pulled out a dollar and showed it to him, and then another and another, one by one, till I had out $250. He raised up and said, 'I must take a chaw.' He pulled out a plug from under his pillow and called out to mother: 'Liz, get up and get this young fellow a first-rate supper, he has had a hard day's work.'

"Lincoln let Berry run the store and it soon ran out. I had to pay the note. Lincoln said he would pay it someday. We used to talk about it as the National debt. Finally he paid it with interest."

Mr. Goff remarked: "The Clary Grove boys were always up to some mischief. They trimmed the manes and tails of horses, cut bridles so that but a little remained to break at the first pull; cut girths, put stones under saddles so as to cause riders to be thrown mounting. Right here in front of Offit's store they rolled James Jordan down that hill. You see it goes down at an angle of 45 degrees. Then it reached down to the river 200 feet, and there was no road there as there is now. He used to come here for whiskey 15 miles, and he would get his fill. When drunk the Armstrongs headed him up in a hogshead. He was a large, fat fellow, and nearly filled it. Then they sent it rolling down the hill. It went with increasing velocity, threatening to go into the river, when it was caught under a leaning white oak, and their victim liberated. Lincoln was here, surrounded by tough fellows of this stamp, but even then he had his eye on the future. He was studying to be a lawyer. All had confidence in his judgment and honesty. He didn't drink like the others, yet he was not a total abstainer.

"I won my first hat on a bet that he could take a drink of whiskey from the bung of a 40-gallon barrel. You see a man named Estep had a trick. He twisted his fingers in a knot, and then bet you couldn't mark his little finger. I had lost several bets on it, when Lincoln said he would help me get even with him. He showed me how he could lift a barrel of whiskey on his knees and put his mouth to the bung hole. He told me to take a keg and hold it up as if drinking and bet a fur hat that Lincoln could take up a barrel of whisky and drink from the bung hole. Estep took the bet and lost.

"Lincoln came to Salem on a flat-boat. Offit had built a flat-boat at the head of the river, loaded it with bacon, corn, hogs and goods of all sorts, and set out to go to New Orleans. Lincoln was put in charge. He started down in the spring flood. Arriving at the dam opposite Salem the scow struck. It was unloaded and a store set up on the bank.

"At one time there were three stores here, and a church serving as a school house. Now all is desolate. Petersburg, started by George Warburton and Peter Lukins - took the wind out of its sails. It was abandoned for a short time. "The roof-tree moulded on the crumbling wall. Then all disappeared, and only a few holes are left to show where houses and stores once were."

A move is on foot to revive the memory of Old Salem and have a park laid out embracing the old site. It would be an attraction to tourists, and of those who wish to see from what humble beginnings and under what circumstances greatness could spring.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



1902 Index

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Illinois Ancestors