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Prairies in Abraham Lincoln’s time were large and unbroken. Photos by Chris Young.

Book on Lincoln’s time as circuit lawyer sheds light on Illinois landscape

February 24, 2013 at 06:07 PM

The State Journal-Register

A book by Bloomington attorney Guy Fraker, “Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency The Eighth Judicial Circuit,” gives us a glimpse of the prairie landscape where Lincoln lived and worked before leaving for Washington, D.C.

“The fact of the matter is, the man that saved the country came from here, and he was altered by this experience,” Fraker said. “And it was (his fellow attorneys) from here (who) went to Chicago and got him the nomination.”

Fraker unravels the story of America’s 16th president’s time riding the circuit and every spring and fall, Lincoln would travel to up to 14 county seats for court sessions.

Conditions were harsh, and the food was bad. Things were so bad, in fact, the lawyers and judges almost never brought their wives along.

“It was perfectly suited to him because of his upbringing,” Fraker said. “Lincoln was tough and he was up to it. He never complained about it, but he never waxed eloquent about it either, especially compared to how we now idolize prairies.”

Some of the descriptions of the prairies and rivers of the time will leave those interested in wildlife habitat restoration wondering what it must have been like.

Between Springfield and Pekin was one of the largest prairies in the state. It was a two-day ride for lawyers on the circuit.

“For miles and miles we saw nothing but a vast expanse of what I can compare to nothing else but the ocean itself,” writes J.H. Buckingham of Boston. “It seemed as if we were out of sight of land for no house, no barn, no tree was visible, and the horizon presented the rolling waves in the distance.”

A new courthouse built in Tremont in 1836 had a spiral staircase leading to the cupola where sightseers could enjoy vistas of unbroken prairie.

Travel was difficult, too, and Fraker includes stories of Lincoln and Judge David Davis trying to cross rain-swollen rivers on horseback.

Decatur resident Jane Johns describes the area before the railroads arrived.

“The prairie surrounding the town had wolves ‘lurking in thickets of tall grass.’ Wild turkeys, Sandhill cranes and prairie chickens roamed, all in great abundance, with ‘wild pigeons so dense as to cast a shadow like a passing cloud.’ ”

Fraker poured over letters, diaries and other documents to assemble his picture of Illinois, including this early county history:

“Mason County was settled late compared to other parts of central Illinois. ... ‘The soil is very sandy. Its main production in the early days was sand burrs and fleas.’ ”

And then the wilderness was over.

Lincoln left Springfield for Washington, D.C. never to return.

And the railroads ushered in a new era of progress.

“James Matheny of Springfield characterized the coming of the railroads as ‘the most important event in the history of Springfield, changing that city forever,’ ” Fraker writes. “An early history of McLean County describes it as the ‘end of pioneer life.’ ”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.Follow him at

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