© 2023 NPR Illinois
The Capital's NPR Network 'News & Community' Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Illinois Issues
Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Land of Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area is One of the Largest Such Regions in Nation

WUIS/Illinois Issues

All Kathy Zimmerman wanted to do was look up the history of her own home. But one thing led to another. Today, 14 years later, the former religious educator and real estate agent is executive director of Pittsfield’s Abe Lincoln Project — and one of 22 members of a steering committee that is on the verge of defining the future of the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, a 42-county swath of central Illinois stretching from the Indiana border to the Mississippi River. 


Surprisingly enough, that’s exactly how the process is supposed to work.

There are 49 national heritage areas in the United States. The National Park Service coordinates and does some marketing of heritage areas, and many contain park service sites, such as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, which is within the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area. But national heritage areas aren’t owned or managed by the park service, and they receive relatively little park service funding. 

“NHAs,” the park service says, “are lived-in landscapes.” Each heritage area is designed to connect sites that together tell a unique story about America’s history, culture or natural resources. But initiatives for preserving and interpreting national heritage areas are supposed to come from the ground up — from people like Kathy Zimmerman. 

The Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area was created by Congress in 2008. Geographically, it’s one of the largest heritage areas in the country, and, as advocates regularly point out, the only one named after a U.S. president. 

The area’s organizers are in the final stages of writing a management plan that is designed to set goals and priorities for the area for 10 to 15 years into the future. The 400-page draft plan — a combined effort of the steering committee, the Springfield-based Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition and a consulting firm, Heritage Strategies LLC of Pennsylvania — has taken nearly two years to develop.

The draft, which covers such topics as historic and natural areas preservation, community planning, education, tourism marketing and, of course, “ways to tell the story of Abraham Lincoln’s life,” was opened to public comment in March. A completed version was to be delivered to the National Park Service’s Omaha regional office in mid-May. If all goes smoothly, the plan is expected to be approved by the NPS and the secretary of the interior this fall. 

What then? For starters, there’s the possibility of additional federal money for the heritage area; the enabling legislation says up to $1 million a year could be available for as long as 15 years. However, Sarah Watson, executive director of the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition, says no heritage area has ever gotten that much from the federal government — $300,000 annually is a more realistic figure, she says. And, whatever the amount, matching money will have to come from somewhere. 

But money was never the entire goal anyway. “The fundamental concept of a heritage area is to make a system out of the many good individual parts that have made the region special just as it is,” the draft management plan says. “A successful system will enable the whole of the national heritage area to be greater than the sum of the contributions of individual players.”

Central Illinois, of course, has been telling the Lincoln story for 150 years, starting with such classic Lincoln “shrines” as the Lincoln Home and Lincoln Tomb in Springfield. Other major sites, such as Lincoln’s New Salem outside Petersburg, the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site south of Charleston, or the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington, came later. And dozens of towns across the region can boast small museums or a house — in Pittsfield’s case, nine houses, including Kathy Zimmerman’s — with connections to Lincoln. 

For much of that time, however, local historic attractions and their sponsors operated independently of each other, mostly because they had nowhere else to turn. 

The Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition was created in 1998 to tie together many of those local sites, in essence setting the stage for the national heritage area. The 2008 law that created the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area defined its geographic boundaries as the same 42 counties in which Looking for Lincoln was already working. (Legislation now in Congress would add three more counties in order to include all of the communities that hosted Lincoln-Douglas debates and all of the Lincoln-era Eighth Judicial Circuit.) The 2008 law also designated Looking for Lincoln as the heritage area’s managing agency. 

The best-known evidence of Looking for Lincoln’s efforts over the past 14 years is the 215 “wayside” exhibits that commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s connections to 52 communities throughout central Illinois, which together are marketed to tourists as the Looking for Lincoln Story Trail. In various ways, the coalition also has supported other local sites, such as a museum and visitor center in Mount Pulaski and a Lincoln statue in Vandalia. In Pittsfield, Looking for Lincoln associates wrote scripts for most of the 14 buildings on the community’s Talking Houses tour, and Kathy Zimmerman remembers former Looking for Lincoln executive director Nicky Stratton and Illinois Historic Preservation Agency research historian Bryon Andreasen driving around town with her to choose the best route for the tour. 

But Looking for Lincoln’s efforts on less visible initiatives also have been significant, and the coalition’s experience in those areas is likely to play a valuable role as the national heritage area moves toward maturity. Looking for Lincoln and the heritage area, for instance, now provide a framework for seminars on historic interpretation and preservation. They’ve made it easier for people from communities involved in the heritage area to trade ideas. And the National Park Service and Looking for Lincoln can provide technical expertise that simply wasn’t available before. 

“If you have someone like Renee Henry at the Trial and Tribulations center in Oakland in Coles County, she can feel she can come to us with concerns,” says Looking for Lincoln project director Robert Crosby. “It’s not just her any more. That builds a lot of confidence.”

And Looking for Lincoln, which hired Watson a few months ago partly because of her fundraising experience, can seek out and administer grants that are beyond the abilities of small-town museums and volunteer historical societies. 

“I see our role as bringing money in, leveraging resources that smaller groups could not leverage,” Watson says. “I’ve had conversations with corporations and foundations who say, ‘Gosh, we can’t support everybody — Danville calls us, Quincy calls us — but we can support you as that overarching group to help get the resources out.’ … It’s much more efficient for them to work with us.”

Zimmerman thinks completion of the management plan will raise the marketing profile of central Illinois’ Lincoln connections, nationally and even internationally. “We realize Pittsfield is never going to get a large factory, so tourism is important to our economic development,” she says. “Pike County has lots of hunting and wonderful recreational opportunities. … There are so many avenues that we can build on through tourism. It’s becoming a vital industry.”

She also sees the National Park Service as an important collaborator — from working with the Abe Lincoln Project to improve Pittsfield’s annual Civil War re-enactment to helping the steering committee learn from heritage areas elsewhere. “We get so many positive reports of National Park Service experience … and funding — not just federal money, but foundation money — thanks to the reputation the park service has,” she says. “They can bring a lot of experience to the table.”

The Abraham Lincoln Heritage Area is still a work in progress — Old State Capitol Historic Site director Justin Blandford calls it “a concept, really” — but those involved all seem enthusiastic about its prospects. 

Cheryl Kennedy, executive director of the Museum of the Grand Prairie in Mahomet, began her involvement there as a volunteer in 1976. She says the ALNHA fulfills a longtime dream of hers, and not just because of its potential to improve the tourism visibility of smaller historic sites. “It helps us talk to people in our communities about a sense of being, a sense of place,” Kennedy says. “It helps them become part of a bigger picture.” 

Of course, it helps that Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area advocates have a lot of raw material to work with. 

“The one thing I have learned in my two months,” Watson says, “is that we are not short of stories to be told about Lincoln.” 

Mike Kienzler is assistant metro editor of The State Journal-Register in Springfield. He also blogs as The Abraham Lincoln Observer. More information about the Abraham Lincoln Heritage Area is at www.lookingforlincoln.com.


By the numbers

Counties in AbrahamLincoln National Heritage Area: 
42 (may be increased to 45) 

Looking for Lincoln Story Trail: 
215 Wayside exhibits in 52communities

Visitors to main attractions:
1.31 million

Volunteers: 2,305

Volunteer hours: 141,547

Economic impact: $144 million

Sources: ALNHA Annual Data Collection Survey (January 6, 2012) Looking for Lincoln FY 2010 Economic Impact Statement

By the Numbers:

Counties in AbrahamLincoln National Heritage Area: 
42 (may be increased to 45) 

Looking for Lincoln Story Trail: 
215 Wayside exhibits in 52communities

Visitors to main attractions:
1.31 million

Volunteers: 2,305

Volunteer hours: 141,547

Economic impact: $144 million

Sources: ALNHA Annual Data Collection Survey (January 6, 2012) Looking for Lincoln FY 2010 Economic Impact Statement


1831-1861 Abraham Lincoln lives in central Illinois.

1998 Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition created as nonprofit; later acquires tax-exempt status, receives administrative funding from Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, in-kind support from Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

2002 Feasibility study prepared for Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area; study revised in 2007.

2005 Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opens in Springfield.

2007 Wayside exhibit program begins; waysides largely installed from 2008 to 2011.

2008 Congress approves creation of Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area.

2010 Heritage Strategies LLC of Pennsylvania awarded $250,000 consulting contract to help develop ALNHA management plan.

March 2012 Draft management plan released for public comment; public meetings held in Springfield, Quincy, Normal and Decatur.

May 2012 Management plan delivered to National Park Service for review.

Fall 2012 Management plan expected to be approved by NPS.



Easily the most visible manifestation of the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition’s efforts to highlight central Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln history is the 215 exhibits — variously known as “signboards,” “waysides” or “text rails” — that make up what the coalition calls the Looking for Lincoln Story Trail. 

Each of the standardized signs focuses on part of the Lincoln story — incidents in his life, people he was connected to, buildings he worked in or visited, sites where he gave speeches or debated Stephen Douglas. One storyboard in Springfield discusses Lincoln’s horse, Old Bob. Another, erected along a country road in Hancock County, denotes the burial sites of the president’s aunt and three of his cousins, one of whom was also named Abraham.

Springfield, unsurprisingly, displays the most storyboards, 48. Quincy (18) and Decatur (15) are next. But a total of 52 communities are on the Story Trail, most with a single exhibit each. Each proposed wayside had to tell an authentic story in an authentic location and be “unique to the locality.” Local sponsors did the initial research and text drafting, although coalition staff members authenticated the information and standardized the presentations. A St. Louis firm designed the boards, which are made primarily of a durable wood/plastic composite with a cleanable coating. 

Most waysides bear a photo or two, and each exhibit also includes a unique rubbing medallion, designed so a visitor can trace the design by laying a piece of paper on the medallion and rubbing a crayon across it (it’s tougher than it sounds). The most elaborate storyboards are freestanding, but many are attached to walls or light poles. 

Local governments, historical societies, chambers of commerce and others, including some individual donors, put up one-third of the cost to produce the waysides, and the coalition paid the rest. Waysides cost as little as $4,000 for a light pole mount, or as much as $12,000 for a double-sided freestanding exhibit. The local partners also are responsible for maintenance.

Wayside installation was largely completed by 2011, and the coalition’s funding for the project — a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — has all been spent. However, the draft management plan for the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area suggests that the wayside program could be expanded, possibly to include sites that do not have direct Lincoln connections. Sarah Watson, Looking for Lincoln’s executive director, agrees that’s a possibility.

“But whether they would look just like the original waysides, maybe yes, maybe no,” she says. “We’ll be looking at what are the creative ways that we can keep telling the story — in the most economically feasible way, but also in the most enduring way. We don’t want something shoddy to go up.”

For more on the Looking for Lincoln Story Trail, including maps, GPS coordinates and a rubbing template, go to: www.lookingforlincoln.com

Mike Kienzler

History Comes Alive:

One of the activities many Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area advocates hope to leverage is History Comes Alive, Springfield’s summertime historypalooza, which features more than two dozen people — costumed re-enactors, musicians and storytellers — and will offer events every day starting June 8. The 2012 program, focused on the Civil War and the home front in Springfield, is being funded by a $248,000 state tourism grant funneled through the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition, primarily to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the Old State Capitol Historic Site. 

“Visitors have been very, very excited,” Springfield Mayor Mike Houston said at a March news conference held to announce the 2012 program. “You should see their faces when Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant visit their restaurant tables.” Old State Capitol site superintendent Justin Blandford says History Comes Alive gives historic presentation designers the chance to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Those lessons then can be passed on to local organizers elsewhere in the heritage area. “Things like History Comes Alive can be replicated throughout Illinois,” he says. 

More information on?History Comes Alive


Illinois Issues, June 2012

Related Stories