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Illinois Country Living

Celebrating Lincoln

What Would Lincoln Say Today?

By Jonie Larson

Fritz Klein

Fritz Klein, pictured here and on the cover, is part of a corporation that promotes Lincoln and a few other presidential impersonators. Those interested in hiring Klein can contact him through

Photos courtesy of Lincoln Institute for Education, Inc.

Fritz Klein has many scheduled appearances in 2009, taking him to many states: Colorado, Indiana, Oregon, Kentucky, Washington, Wyoming, Arizona, to name a few. But the week of Lincoln's birthday, Klein will be in Springfield for many celebrations. Following are some of those appearances.

  • Feb. 11 - Farewell address at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, an appearance at the Lincoln Depot, and an evening with the Illinois Symphony.

  • Feb. 12 - Family reading program twice at the Lincoln Home, Springfield. Lincoln will also be visiting children in area hospitals that day.

  • Feb 13 - Klein, along with Don Phillips, author of the best-selling book “Lincoln on Leadership” will address government leaders on Lincoln's leadership that morning. Later that day another program will mark the first of two days tracing the odyssey from slavery to the Whitehouse.

  • Feb. 14 - Second day of a two-day program tracing the black man's odyssey from slavery to the Whitehouse. Also, the afternoon features a “Biography in Words and Music” at the Lincoln Home.


Age is working to Fritz Klein’s advantage. With each passing year, he believes he looks more and more like the man he often strives to be: Abraham Lincoln.

The storybook tale of Klein portraying Lincoln started in 1976 while living in Hawaii. He was a career landscaper who performed on occasion in community theater. One of his initial roles was an 1820s New England character, who wore a long coat and top hat. Someone saw him in that role and envisioned him as a Lincoln.

That was the beginning.

“When I tried to actually look like him, I found some striking similarity,” Klein says.

He stands 6 foot 3 inches, less than an inch shorter than the real Lincoln stood. With inserts in his shoes, that puts Klein right in line with the 16th president.

But his height is the least of the many things that makes Klein a well-known Lincoln impersonator in this state and many others. Over the years he has developed a full Lincoln portfolio that finds him traveling the country.

Klein, who now lives in Springfield and has a schedule that’s filling up by the day in this bicentennial year marking Lincoln’s birthday, finds a lot to admire about the man who led the country so many years ago.

“Lincoln is a wonderful character. He wasn’t flawless, but his good points are so (in the forefront) in the American memory,” Klein says.

Klein says Lincoln was someone to look up to, much the way the Christian society finds strength in Christ. He clarified that.

“Abraham Lincoln was no way like Christ, but he is inspiring. He came from humble beginnings. If he can be that kind of person, why can’t the rest of us?” Klein questions.

Klein says in his many portrayals of the 19th century leader, he likes to take the circumstances of Lincoln’s day and make them relevant to present times.

With Lincoln’s political career taking root in Illinois, one can only speculate what Lincoln would think about the election of Illinois Senator Barack Obama and the accusations leveled against Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Who better to theorize on Lincoln’s reaction than Klein, a man who has read and studied his many actions and reactions.

“The attorney general recently said Lincoln would be shocked by Blagojevich. My viewpoint differs. Lincoln’s strength was that he was not particularly shocked by human behaviors. He worked with people who had imperfections. In his own administration, he discovered some corruption,” Klein says.

So, what would have surprised Lincoln in today’s society? Klein says Lincoln would have been surprised “in a good way” with the advancement of technology.

“He loved inventions … he was the only president in history who owns a patent on his own invention” – a lift of sorts to help boats maneuver over sandbars and debris, as Klein describes it.

“No one ever bought it, but it was a great idea.”

What would trouble Lincoln?

“He was very much concerned about the exclusion of any segment of society,” Klein says. Parallel to that, Klein thinks Lincoln also would have been distraught with abortion.

Take our online quiz and test your knowledge of Abraham Lincoln.

“I think he would have worked on behalf of unborn children, but that’s a wild guess,” Klein says.

He adds to the dimension of Lincoln by reminding us that Lincoln was very concerned about the advancement of the system – that his early focus wasn’t on slavery, as so many might think. Klein said Lincoln believed that slavery was on a natural course of extinction, which would occur as the country developed. Because of that belief, Lincoln was first focused on many other things plaguing the country – all time highs in public intoxication and immigration and a banking crisis. Of course, all of that changed as the Civil War became a reality.

Fritz KleinKeeran brings Lincoln back to McLean County

James Keeran didn't have a life-long goal of impersonating Abraham Lincoln, but he had the background for it. He was a theater major in college and a feature writer in his field.

Around 1990, the McLean County Historical Society asked a friend of Keeran's to help with a fundraiser. She said she would if Keeran, too, was involved. He agreed and began researching plays, settling on “Mr. Lincoln” written by Herbert Mitgang, a man once on the staff of the New York Times.

Keeran was a theater major in college - a feat that would aid him in this role to memorize an hour and a half dialogue. He performed “Mr. Lincoln” four times at Illinois Wesleyan, his alma mater. And then a short time later, he was asked to do a cut of it in Peoria. Not wanting to shorten it, he opted to write his own works and called it “An autobiography of A. Lincoln.” The essence of Keeran's work is derived from 1858 when Jesse Fell, a friend of Abe's, who founded the town of Normal and others in the area, called Abe and told him he should run for the presidency. Fell, in his endeavor to convince Lincoln to run, asked him to write some things about himself. Lincoln complied in 1859, writing a 2 1/2 page document about his life. In Keeran's half-hour production or play, he uses Lincoln's letter in the first part, then takes the audience through Lincoln's whole life.

Keeran's other work consists of a CD that can be purchased through the McLean County Historical Society. He wrote and recorded the CD, which takes people to 17 places in around the area in which Lincoln had influence. An illustrated booklet with then-and-now pictures and tour directions accompany the CD called “CD Tour Narrated by Abraham Lincoln.”

Lastly, Keeran, who is also running for 7th ward alderman in Bloomington, has written a full-length play on how Lincoln came to be nominated for the presidency. It has yet to be published or produced.

Keeran, who usually dresses up in full attire for two to three gigs a year, is adamant about portraying Lincoln in character.

“I am not a mingling Lincoln,” he said. He does his best work on stage and that's the way he intends to keep it.

Persons interested in contacting Keeran about portraying Lincoln, can call him at 309-829-3640.

Traveling with Lincoln
You can find a piece of Lincoln history in every corner of Illinois

By Jonie Larson

Feb. 12 marks the celebration of the 200th birthday of the 16th president of the United States. The fact that he ran as a Republican fades in the memories of most, thinking more of his valiant efforts to lead a country through its greatest internal conflict.

Thousands of books have been authored on the man, the Internet is full of lore about him, and each of us carries around his picture in our wallets and change purses.

And so, we ask, what can a magazine that circulates through the state’s rural communities, tell us about this man that we don’t already know? Your co-op leaders have helped provide those answers.

He stood in Galena

Let’s review some of Lincoln’s notable appearances starting in northern co-op land – in the picturesque town of Galena. Lincoln spoke twice in that area, once in his early years, the other just a few years before his presidency. The date of his second visit was in July 1856.

Patrick G. Keleher, Vice President of Energy Services at Jo-Carroll Energy, Elizabeth, Ill., introduced us to Steve Repp, historical librarian in Galena. Repp provided a clipping from the Galena Daily Advertiser, which details Lincoln’s visit on that date.

Lincoln stood high above the main street that day, overlooking a large crowd from the balcony of the De Soto House (pictured above). Described as being “argumentative,” Lincoln retraced the history of slavery and the “consequences of permitting the curse to spread itself.” He declared in his speech that greatness had been achieved because of freedom.

The balcony where Lincoln towered over the crowd still has its place at the De Soto, but is rather non-descript to the many tourists that wander the streets of the restored town. But look up next time you walk by the De Soto. A vision of Lincoln, crawling out a second story window and then leaning over the railing to address the crowds, is really rather easy to conjure up in this town of yesteryear.

Across the state line

Venture just a bit farther north where Marty Berg, Member Relations Manager for Rock Energy Cooperative, Janesville, Wisc., put us in touch with personnel at the William Tallman home, 440 N. Jackson St., Janesville. It is there, where Lincoln bonded with Tallman on Oct. 1 and 2 of 1859, starting a friendship that would endure until Lincoln’s untimely death.

Tina Love, Volunteer Coordinator for the historic Italianate villa mansion, provided some details about Lincoln’s overnight stay with the Tallman family. She said Lincoln had spoken at the state fair in Milwaukee and was on a speaking tour in Beloit, Wisc. Like Lincoln, Tallman was an attorney, an abolitionist and an agriculturalist. Tallman sent word, asking Lincoln to stay overnight at his home.

Lincoln, once elected president, would continue his correspondence with the Tallman family, helping one of their sons earn a job in a prestigious office of government. Their daughter, who appeared to be a little smitten with the president, would write to him. He regularly answered her letters, according to Love.

The Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, annually hosts a Civil War festival in July where Lincoln, Mary Todd and General Grant make appearances. This year the festival is planned for July 18 and 19.

Details on celebrations in Janesville can be accessed and verified at

Man hanged after Lincoln loses case

In 1839, mid-state and far west in Carthage, Ill., home to Western Illinois Electric, a most significant Lincoln appearance took place. Lincoln, as an attorney, represented a man in a trial, lost the case, resulting in the man’s hanging.

As the story is told by Brenda Pyatt, Community Development Director for Carthage, the crime centered around a fight on a riverboat, supposedly over a cigar. William Fraim, one of the parties upset in the dispute, apparently stabbed and killed a man.

In the one-day trial at the courthouse, Lincoln tried to get Fraim off, but failed. Fraim was hanged a few weeks later at a festive event, Pyatt says, noting that school dismissed for the spectacle and families brought out picnics to observe. Justice was delivered swiftly in Lincoln’s day.

Lincoln’s other visits to the area occurred during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Markers exist throughout the county, showing places where Lincoln debated.

He visited friends in Lewiston

Moving back over into the territory served by Spoon River Electric Cooperative, Canton, Ill., folks can still stop in front of a home where Lincoln often visited good friend, Major Newton Walker. The home, now a private residence, was the gathering place for the two men on many occasions. According to tourism information from the Web, Walker and Lincoln served together in the state legislature and it was in this home that Lincoln stayed and was often entertained.

See the home and read more about it on Web sites in the Spoon River Electric Co-op territory: and

Attorney on the Circuit in Shelby County

Years before Lincoln would be running for the presidency, he was an attorney, serving on the 8th Judicial Circuit, which is a part of the Shelby Electric Cooperative territory southeast of Springfield. The Vice President of Media and Public Relations Kevin Bernson says Freddie Fry, Director of Tourism in Shelby County, is the go-to person on Lincoln history in the Shelby area.

Fry says Lincoln traveled the area in 1853 and 1854, debating with Anthony Thornton, an attorney and local politician. She likened the debates to today’s CNN – a place people turn to get the story.

In that decade, Fry says Lincoln represented clients in 35 cases, most of them regarding debt.

In her studies, Fry has concluded that “Central Illinois was the hotbed of politics.” She said while Chicago was the hub of industry and jobs, it was downstate that made decisions that would move the country westward.

Lincoln represented a slave owner

Moving on over to more easterly regions of the state, Coles and Edgar counties are home to many Lincoln connections. EnerStar Electric Co-op’s Manager of Member Services Angela Griffin, helped us find the links, one of the greatest being the home of Dr. Hiram Rutherford, a man marked by history as a friend of Lincoln and someone who championed human rights.

The story, in short, is about the doctor’s attempt to free some slaves that had been brought north by a Kentucky slave owner to help harvest crops. The slaves, fearing their family would be separated, fled in the night, taking shelter with Rutherford and another man. The Kentucky slave owner, General Robert Matson, sued the two for detaining his slaves.

Lincoln enters the picture at this point. Rutherford asked his friend Lincoln to represent him against Matson, but Matson had already hired Lincoln. This case, in which Lincoln represents a slave owner, has been the study of scholars for years, according to a Coles County Legal History Project.

The story will come alive at two historic sites and through a theatrical presentation on Sept. 18 and 19, 2009 in Oakland. called Trial and Tribulations: The Story of the 1847 Matson Slave Trial.

The home of Rutherford still stands in Oakland, Ill. It is open to visitors. Find more information at Rutherford Home and Complex:

Lincoln at New Salem

Like Springfield, Ill., Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, is a popular tourist destination. Located about 2 miles south of Petersburg and about 20 miles northwest of Springfield in Menard Electric Cooperative’s territory, it is a reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln spent his early adulthood.

According to the Web site, the six years Lincoln spent in New Salem formed a turning point in his career. Although he never owned a home in the area, Lincoln was engaged in a variety of activities while he was at New Salem.

The village is home to 12 log houses. The old buildings have been reproduced and furnished as they might have been in the 1830s.

Tourists can visit the 700-acre site from March 1 to Oct. 31 when it is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Hours throughout the remainder of this month will be 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For verification of hours before visiting call: 217-632-4000.

Southern towns celebrate debates

Steps painted on this southern sidewalk by a Jonesboro resident last year continue to mark the steps Lincoln took enroute to debate Stephen A. Douglas back in 1858. The two men were vying for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, making the town and the area - then known as Egypt - the third site of seven debates that took place in the state.

Just last year the area of Anna and Jonesboro, towns located in Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative territory, celebrated the sesquicentennial of those debates. A Union County committee known as P.A.S.T. – Promoting Appreciation of Structural Treasures – was formed to organize the event. It also took the initiative to get a grant from the Illinois Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to help acquire two bronze statues, one of Lincoln, the other of Douglas. The figures stand in Lincoln Memorial Park in Jonesboro.

Jerri Schaefer, Director of Communications for Southern Illinois Electric, put us in touch with Linda Hileman, who co-chairs P.A.S.T. with her husband Duane. Linda Hileman said Lincoln stayed in Anna with D.L. Phillips, a friend and one of the few Republicans in that area at that time.

P.A.S.T. is hosting a 200th birthday dinner and a breakfast with Abe this month. The dinner will be at 6 p.m., Feb. 6 at Great Boars of Fire. Reservations for the dinner are being taken by phoning 618-833-8745. Cost of the dinner is $25.

“Breakfast With Abe” will follow the next morning from 9 to 10 a.m. at the Sunshine Inn, S. Main St., Anna. Cost is $5. Lincoln impersonator George Buss will be attending the events. Proceeds will be going to help P.A.S.T. purchase the D.L. Phillips home, a $200,000 preservation investment for the community. Readers wishing to contribute toward the purchase, can send funds to P.A.S.T., 190 White Pine, Anna, Ill. 62906.

Coles County links of interest to Lincoln

* Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site - The site of the 1840s home of Lincoln's father and stepmother, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, is now a working, living-history farm with many interpretive programs.

* Moore Home State Historic Site - It was here that Lincoln bid farewell to his stepmother on Jan. 31, 1861, before leaving Illinois to become the 16th president.

* The Lincoln-Douglas Debate Museum - The only museum in Illinois dedicated to the 1858 senatorial debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Exhibits, film, audio selections, artifacts, photos, a children's hands-on area and a life-size sculpture of Lincoln and Douglas help tell the story.

* Shiloh Church & Cemetery State Memorial - The burial place of Lincoln's father and stepmother, Thomas Lincoln and Sarah Bush Lincoln.

Other Lincoln sites of interest in the state:


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