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Making history fun

By DIANE R. CHODAN

OBSERVER Staff Writer

It’s almost Lincoln’s birthday and we are fortunate to have reminders of a “human interest story” about our 16th president in our area.

In elementary school in Dunkirk, I first heard the story about Grace Bedell. It was perhaps repeated in what was called junior high when we studied New York state history and geography.

Grace was 11 when she wrote her famous letter to Lincoln, suggesting he grow a beard. At that time, he was a candidate for president. Lincoln answered her letter, but did not promise to actually grow a beard. Later when Lincoln was president, he took the train from Springville, Ill. to Washington, D.C. The train stopped in Westfield and Lincoln asked to meet Grace Bedell. Now with a beard, he reportedly asked her if she liked the result of her suggestion.

The story was one of the little tidbits that made history live for me.

A statue commemorating the famous meeting was dedicated on July 10, 1999 in Westfield after nearly 10 years of effort. According to the plaque near the statue in the Lincoln-Bedell Park, Billie Dibble, town historian at the time, had the inspiration for the statue and Dr. Kent Brown guided the project to completion.

The statue, created by Westfield native Don Sottile, is something I regularly take out-of-town visitors to see. My great-niece Chrystee looked at the statue and decided she could pose as the recipient of Lincoln’s hand. My sister-in-law took a picture of her Yorkie, Cocoa, posing in Lincoln’s hat.

For some reason, my brother, although growing up in Dunkirk, either hadn’t heard about or had forgotten the story of Grace Bedell. I found her letter on the Internet and forwarded it to him after his visit. He was impressed.

The reaction I cherish the most is that of my granddaughter, Alexandra, last summer. She loved the statue, looked at it carefully and noted the rose on the bricks. She enjoyed the notion that a letter from a young girl could capture the attention of an important person. I had her imitate Chrystee, and took several other pictures. Her broad grin reminds me how much she enjoyed our day in Westfield.

There are at least three books on the subject, “Lincoln’s Little Girl” by Fred Trump, and two books called “Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers,” one by Burke Davis and one by Karen B. Winnick. I ordered Winnick’s book from The Book Nook. The copyright date on this is 1996. A picture story book beautifully illustrated, it tells the story of Grace, the letter she wrote, Lincoln’s return letter, and Grace meeting Lincoln in Westfield.

When Alex visited me again, I told her I had a special story for her and we read it before she went to bed.

“Oh, Grandma, I love that story,” she said after we finished reading.

Alex asked me to keep the book at my house so when she came back we could read it together again.

What I like about presenting history in this way is the many directions it can take a child, depending on the child’s interests and questions. We can get copies of the other books to learn more and compare how the stories are presented. We can write a letter to an important person. We can learn more about the time period and Lincoln.

My own curiosity was aroused. I decided to look into what happened to Grace Bedell and was surprised to find that in 2007, another letter from Grace to Lincoln was discovered. Karen Needles was doing research through Treasury Department Documents at the National Archives when she found a letter dated Jan. 14, 1864. Bedell was looking for Lincoln’s help to secure employment in the Treasury Department. Her family was no longer living in Westfield and was encountering financial hard times.

It’s likely that the letter never reached Lincoln’s desk.

Grace, at 17, married a civil war veteran, George Newton Billings. They moved to Delphos, Kansas. She was well-known there for the letter she wrote and a monument commemorating her is located in the town square there.

Who says history has to be boring?

Comments on this article may be directed to dchodan@observertoday.com