Publisher’s Perspective – Issue 5

Iowa also has claim to Lincoln

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, who entered the world in a small log cabin in Kentucky on February 12, 1809. All across the nation, the 16th president is being remembered in a variety of ways that celebrate his impact on America.

Early in the afternoon of August 1st, I was at HooverFest in West Branch, Iowa, talking about the legendary wrestling match between Abe Lincoln and Jack Armstrong that took place in the little frontier village of New Salem, Illinois, in 1831. The invitation came due to a small booklet I have written about Lincoln’s grappling background, called The Sport of Lincoln.

As readers of issue two of Iowa History Journal may recall, HooverFest is a daylong celebration of Herbert Hoover, the first President from west of the Mississippi. He was born in West Branch, Iowa, in 1874 and is buried on the grounds of the Hoover Museum and Library. It is a gorgeous facility, set in the rolling, green hills of Iowa.

HooverFest has grown into a large event and this year the organizers wanted to include Lincoln in a special way. They contacted me and asked if I would give a presentation of the wrestling match that helped shape Lincoln’s character.

I was delighted to accept the invitation. Since I needed two young wrestlers to help with the re-enactment, I called Mark Reiland, the highly-successful coach at West High in Iowa City. A former NCAA champion at Iowa, Mark is heavily involved with youth wrestling and he found two young grapplers to demonstrate what the match was like in 1831.

Justin Koethe was fresh from a national championship in the Cadet Nationals in Fargo, and he played Lincoln. Grady Gambrail, a national qualifier, took on the role of Jack Armstrong.

Standing on a stage with a microphone, I told the crowd about the importance of that contest in terms of how it helped shape Lincoln’s character. Many historians have said the wrestling match helped Lincoln find confidence in himself and set him on the path to greatness.

The match was wrestled under “side hold” rules – something like the clinch seen today in Greco-Roman matches. Justin and Grady did great job of jostling for position and tossing each other to the soft grass over and over. The crowd loved it!

So did Dr. Steve Devries, a Big Ten champion for Iowa (177 pounds in 1971) and former coach at nearby Cornell College. Steve and his wife, Marie, were in the crowd. He is a veteran educator and says talking about the Lincoln match is a great way to create interest in both the sport and American history.

I AM OF THE opinion that Abe Lincoln is one of the two most important figures ever born in the Western Hemisphere, the other being George Washington. Sure, there were many other tremendously gifted men and women from this Hemisphere, but since the United States of America is the greatest power ever on the face of the earth and these two men are largely responsible for it being what it is, then the case can be made for either man.

In fact, most historians rank them one and two, with Lincoln usually in the top spot.

Over many years of driving down Highway 63, between Traer and Toledo, I have seen the sign that proclaims “Lincoln Historical Marker.” On several occasions, I have pulled off and driven down the dirt road to gaze at the site.

As a young man, Lincoln served in the Black Hawk Wars around the Dixon, Illinois area. Many of the volunteers received land in the west in lieu of pay. Lincoln was one of those men, his land “in the west” being in Iowa.

In August, I followed the sign again and soon found myself in front of a large plaque on a piece of rolling Iowa farmland. It is located five miles north of Toledo, and three miles west of Highway 63. It is at the top of a low hill, and on this particular day the temperature was about 75 and there was a gentle breeze blowing in from the east. It was a gorgeous day.

The sign reads:

“Lincoln Land Grant – Abraham Lincoln served in the 4th Illinois Volunteers infantry during the Black Hawk War in 1832. For his services, he was granted 2 land warrants in Iowa. One of those was a 40-acre tract in Tama County. This warrant was issued to him on April 16, 1852. An attorney recorded it for him 2 years later. In 1854, Lincoln paid 75 cents taxes on this land. After Lincoln’s death, his widow singed a quit claim deed on April 16, 1874, to her son Robert Todd Lincoln, who sold the land.”

The sign was erected through the efforts of Alpha Psi chapter of the Iowa State Historical Department of the Iowa State Historical Society.

The other 40-acre tract of land is in Crawford County, further west.

It’s not known if Lincoln ever saw the land, but it is doubtful. He did take a long trip through Iowa in 1859 to Council Bluffs, assessing the value of some land being considered for a railroad. He also gave a speech in Council Bluffs before retuning to his home in Springfield, Illinois, and his destiny.

Standing there in front of the Lincoln land grant plaque on that warm August day, I was struck by how beautiful the Iowa landscape really is. And I felt a sense of pride in knowing that one of the greatest Americans to ever draw breath owned that small piece of Iowa land, however briefly.

Illinois is The Land of Lincoln, but Iowa also has a very small claim to the 16th President of the United States, the man who preserved the Union.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Iowa’s tremendous farm legacy and history than The WHO Radio Great Iowa Tractor Ride!

(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)