Sunday, February 11, 2024

Abraham Lincoln: From Log Cabin to President -- By Brenna Powelson

Of the 46 U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln has been ranked the best by historians, but what made Lincoln so special wasn't the fact that he saved the Union from falling to its knees to the Confederacy, how he helped bring about the end of slavery, or he proved Democracy is the way to govern. If it were these things that made Lincoln such a great president, why couldn't these things have been done before his presidency, and why hadn't anyone else been able to accomplish what Lincoln did? What made Lincoln, Lincoln? 

On February 12, 1809, Nancy and Thomas Lincoln welcomed a baby boy into their home who would be named Abraham, named after his grandfather who was killed by Native Americans. Abraham was not their first child; his older sister Sarah was born February 10, 1807, exactly two days and two years older than her brother. The family of four lived in a one room log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. Nancy spent her days doing household chores and trying to teach her children to read and write the best she could, having no formal education herself. Thomas Lincoln was a farmer; he had 30 acres and raised pumpkins and corn. The children both attended a small school and helped with chores around the house and farm–Sarah with her mother, and Abe with his father. Abraham never truly enjoyed doing farm work and would rather be reading and learning. 

The family lived in Kentucky until 1816.  Because of conflicts over land titles and wanting to get away from the raise of slavery in Kentucky, the family moved to Pigeon Creek, Indiana, where Thomas built them a cabin. Abraham continued to help his father on the farm and improved his skill with the ax and the plow while continuing to attend school as often as he could but still very little. Lincoln grew up without the love for farming his father wanted him to have; however, to be fair, his love for farming would have been greater if he hadn't been kicked in the head by a horse, causing a lazy eye. I wouldn't like farming much either after that.

In 1819 the Lincoln family had to deal with a tragic loss. His mother passed away after getting milk sickness, which is caused when someone drinks the milk of a cow that ate a toxic plant. This was a hard hit for everyone in the family but mainly for Abraham, who was very close to his mother, as she encouraged him to read and learn. Forty years later Lincoln still felt the impact of his mother saying, "All that I am or hope to be, I own to my angel mother.” Thomas and Abraham built a coffin and buried Nancy on a hill near the cabin.

Unable to live without his wife, Thomas went back to Kentucky to find a new wife named Sarah Bush Johnston, who was a widow with children. Sarah loved the Lincoln children like her own. Lincoln's stepmother always showed affection to her stepson, and he returned her affection. Years after Lincoln's death Sarah would say, ¨Abe was the best boy I ever saw.”

Lincoln is known for his height. Standing at 6´4¨, he looked like a giant to most. At 19 years old Lincoln finished growing and spent his days wrestling with other locals. He continued wrestling when he moved to New Salem, where he wrestled in 300 matches and only lost one. The people in New Salem said Lincoln could lift a good amount of weight and drive an ax deeper than any man around.

Abraham and his sister grew up very close and would were still close until January 20, 1828, when Sarah passed away during childbirth. Sarah was married to Aaron Grigsby whose family lived near the Lincoln family. When Abraham heard of his sister´s death, all we could do was sob. After Abraham's death reporters traveled to Indiana to learn about the President and said Lincoln blamed Sarah's death on her husband´s negligence.

In 1828 Lincoln was invited by James Gentry to go on a flatboat with Gentry’s son to New Orleans with produce. Lincoln witnessed a slave auction, which greatly disturbed him and made a lasting impact on him. Lincoln ended up working for Gentry at his store in Illinois, where he developed an interest in politics. When people came into the store they would talk about political views, and Lincoln would listen, then began sharing views of his own. 

In 1830 Thomas Lincoln decided to move his family to Macon County, Illinois. Abraham left his family and moved to New Salem. Right off the bat Lincoln was well liked by his fellow citizens. During his time in New Salem, Lincoln was busy. He was elected captain of the thirty-first Regiment of the Illinois Militia in the Blackhawk War. He worked odd jobs such as a shopkeeper, surveyor, postmaster and also began to read law.  

Lincoln's professional life is talked about very often, but what is not mentioned as much is his personal life–for good reason, because it is sad. While in New Salem Lincoln met a lady named Ann Rutledge, who would make Lincoln feel love then the deepest despair. The couple met when Lincoln was working as the postmaster. Lincoln is known as the man who captured Anne´s heart after her first failed engagement. ¨Lincoln's last law partner, William Herndon, wrote in a letter that Lincoln and she were engaged. Lincoln told me so.¨ While little is known about the couple it is said that Anne was Lincoln's first love, and when she died from typhoid fever, Lincoln couldn't stand it.

Lincoln eventually married Miss Mary Todd, a woman who was best described by a friend of Lincoln as, a woman who was to make his domestic life “a burning, scorching hell, terrible as death and as gloomy as the grave.” Mary was the opposite of her future husband. When Lincoln arrived in Illinois, he already had a crowd of people following him, wanting to know the tall lanky man. Mary, on the other hand, was not well liked. It is said that everyone who met her disliked her. The couple married in 1842 and lived in Springfield. They were the talk of the town, with people saying such things as “She seemed to take a special delight in contradicting her husband and humiliating him on every occasion,” said Maria Biddle. “Poor Abe, I can see him now running and crouching,” William Herdon said. Mary would even assault the man with broomsticks, potatoes, pieces of stove wood, cups of hot coffee—sometimes striking him hard enough to draw blood. 

The unhappy couple remained married until the fateful day in April of 1865. They had four children: Robert 1843-1926, Edward 1846-1850, Thomas 1853-1871, and the youngest William, who lived 1850-1862. 

Lincoln is very well known for his political career, but some may not know that he started his political career at a young age. In 1834 he was elected as a Whig candidate in the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly, where he served until 1846 when he was elected from the Whig Party to the United States House of Representatives, where he only served one term. During his term he introduced spot resolutions, challenging President James K. Polk to prove that the "spot" of land on which American blood had been shed was the event that prompted the United States to declare war on Mexico had in fact been shed on American soil. In March of 1849 he was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court before resuming law in Springfield. 

In 1854 Lincoln was inspired to return to politics when passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act allowed slavery to expand beyond their existing boundaries. He gave a three hour speech to run for the Illinois House of Representatives, which was unsuccessful, as was his run for the Illinois Senate.

Between August to October of 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate, traveled around Illinois debating on certain topics, with each debate lasting three hours. These debates put Lincoln's political career on the map, while muffling Douglas´ Career. 

Over the years Lincoln became very popular in Illinois, and the northern states nominated him to run as president on May 18, 1860.  He ran against the other candidates: John Breckinridge as a southern Democrat, John Bell, Constitutional Union, and Stephen A Douglas as a Democratic candidate 

Abraham Lincoln won the election, becoming the 16th president of the United States, with 180 electoral votes and 1,866,452 poplar votes. John Breckinridge lost with 72 electoral votes and 847,953 popular votes, John Bell with 39 electoral votes and 590,901 popular votes, and Stephen Douglas with 12 electoral votes and 1,380,202 popular votes.

From March 4, 1861 to April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln served his four-year term as President of the United States, and from April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865, the American Civil War was fought. The war lasted four years, becoming one of the bloodiest battles in American history. On April 15th President Lincoln called for 75,000 militia, after which Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee seceded from the Union in the following weeks.

During the bloody war the president tried to lead the Union to success while the Confederacy tried to drag the Union through the mud. Soldiers dropped like flies due to war conditions or sicknesses like pneumonia, typhoid, diarrhea/dysentery, and malaria. Many deaths were a result of infected battle wounds that were left untreated. 

The first two years of the war dragged by for the soldiers, for the president, and for the United States as a whole. While not actually fighting on the battlefield himself, Lincoln would communicate with the military using electronic devices such as the telegram, making him the first president in history to do so. 

After Lincoln was elected the South started to secede from the Union, with South Carolina being the first to secede on December 20 of 1860. Lincoln had to secretly arrive in Washington DC after an assassin attempt in Baltimore. One March 4th, Lincoln was Inaugurated the 16th president of the United States. On April 12th the Confederacy fired on the Union held Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War. 

On January 1st of 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, which stated enslaved people in rebelling states could be free. Black troops were happy, but white southerners were outraged. This document was a turning point, because now the end goal was to make a better Union without slavery. 

One of the most famous battles in the Civil War was the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1-3, 1863. The battle had more casualties than any other battles of the war, but the Union came out on top after a gruesome battle. Thirty-three thousand were wounded, and ten thousand died. There were six Confederate generals and five Union generals in this battle, more than any other battle. The Battle of Gettysburg is known as one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Months later in November of 1863 the nation was looking for their leader to guide them after years of fighting and gallons of blood shed on American soil. President Lincoln gave one of the most famous speeches in American history. Lasting only two minutes and consisting of only 272 words, it was Lincoln's shortest speech. 

The next two years of the war felt like two decades, but on April 9, 1865 at last the Union won over the Confederacy. With the war finished, the 13th Amendment went into effect, freeing all enslaved people in the nation. Unfortunately, the president would only have six days to celebrate with the Union.

On April 14th at 10:20 p.m. Lincoln was watching a play at Ford's Theater when John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind him and shot him straight into the back of his head. Lincoln was taken across the street at the Petersen boarding house, since it was thought Lincoln would not survive the ride to the White House due to bumpy roads. In Lincoln´s room, his wife Mary checked on him regularly. Outside thousands of people were on the street waiting for news.

At 7:22 a.m. President Lincoln was pronounced dead; for this was one hit the president could not shake off. However, his leadership changed the state of Illinois and the entire country more than any other president.


Weathering the Storms

Living in the Midwest, we are familiar with the ever changing, diverse, and oftentimes, extreme weather. I don’t need to tell you how crazy Mother Nature’s mood swings can be. We’ve all experienced them—sometimes two or three within a twenty-four hour period!

Living in a rural community, not only do we experience these weather events on a regular basis, but we talk about them—at lot! In fact, chatting about the weather in these parts isn’t just making small talk, it’s talking about something important to our daily lives. Whether we are working, exercising, or playing outdoors, being out and about taking care of business, or trying to figure out if the roads are passable, the weather is important. It’s also important to know what the weather is supposed to do. We have forecasts available at the tap of a phone screen. While weather apps are handy, they are constantly updating as the weather and conditions change, giving us more reason to constantly check our phones!

Growing up on a grain and livestock farm, and weathering the blizzards of the late seventies, I know that even though winter weather can be interesting and beautiful, it can also be dangerous. It can make it much harder to do the most basic of chores—watering and feeding livestock. With current technology we can look ahead and plan ahead, but it’s still no fun working outdoors under severe weather conditions. When heavy snow and strong wind hits, even the best laid plans can go awry.

With my current work as a conservationist, I try to plan field work for decent weather, but that’s not always possible. Hot and humid weather is not ideal, and neither is extremely cold, wet, and windy weather. During the winter, frozen fields without much snow cover can make field work go faster, allowing for driving across the fields to save much time. Last year, I had the misfortune to get stuck not once, but twice, when doing field work. That is more than all my previous 29 years at the Stark County SWCD combined. There was also a very near miss on a dirt road that started off innocent enough, but ended with me having very sweaty clenched palms around the steering wheel and my heart racing. Since we rarely have sunny and 75 degree days, that means we must work outdoors in less than perfect weather much of the time.

Fortunately, I try to see the beauty in my surroundings every day. So while it’s tempting to stay tucked away inside as much as possible in bad weather, I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to catch winter weather scenery photos. I’m out with my camera on foggy, misty, frosty, snowy, and icy days, photographing some of nature’s simplest but finest beauty—various forms of precipitation on our local native trees, plants, and landscapes. Sometimes weathering the storm can be a beautiful thing, as long as you’re prepared for the worst.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Checking out the Local Scene(ry)

Hennepin Canal at Lock 19 near Wyanet

 I love traveling. Whether it’s checking out unusual and breathtaking scenic areas or experiencing different cultures, architecture styles, foods, museums, and other cool stuff in a big city, traveling is an amazing experience. Wherever I travel to I try to soak up as much local color as possible. Since we live in an area that isn’t known or widely visited for its scenic beauty we oftentimes overlook it. But there are so many local areas to explore, and once you start looking closely the beauty shines through.
Eastern Tailed Blues at Nachusa Grasslands

Because I’m constantly on the lookout for new-to-me species to include in the children’s books I write, I’ve been on the go a lot the past couple of years visiting natural areas to keep expanding not only my photography collection to use in my books, but also to expand my knowledge of the natural world. After all these years—more than 37—of working in and studying nature, I still not only enjoy it, but am always learning something new. In fact, I’ve decided that the more I know, the less I know.

For example, who knew there were so many fall asters? The more species I come across, the harder it is to tell one from another. Even individual plants within the same species may have color, size, and growth variations, further complicating the identification process. Even though many people probably don’t know or care about telling one aster apart from another, it’s fun for me to run across ones I’ve never seen—or noticed—before.

Compass Plant at Munson Prairie near Cambridge

Plus, there’s the fact that these late bloomers are a goldmine for pollinators. During a recent trip to the Sandy Hollow Prairie area at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, I noted a dozen butterfly species within a few hundred feet from the parking area. Most of them were attracted to Showy Goldenrods (and yes, there are multiple native goldenrod species as well!). When I visited the next week, the goldenrods were done blooming, and pollinators were feasting on clumps of the remaining Aromatic Asters in bloom.

Shadows behind Prairie Dock at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge

Another neat place I’ve discovered this year is Nachusa Grasslands, east of Dixon. This huge area is composed of both remnant and restored prairie, savanna, wetland, and forest habitats. I’ve lost track of the new plants I’ve encountered when roaming over the thousands of acres (being careful to avoid the roaming bison within their fenced in prairie pastures) of this site.

Goats Rue at Nachusa Grasslands

I’ve also “haunted” some local remnant prairie cemeteries this year such as Munson Cemetery near Cambridge, Scotch Cemetery near Victoria, and Hetzler Cemetery near LaMoille. These hidden gems are great places for those who want to go back in time to experience both the historical aspect, plus the natural aspect. Having never been plowed, these areas are a goldmine of high quality native plant species. Some are well maintained with fire and weed removal while others need some help, but there are still hidden treasures within them, waiting to be discovered. I also visited McCune Sand Prairie north of Mineral a few times during the summer. What an interesting and beautiful place not far from home that’s full of Eastern prickly pear cactus and other neat finds.

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus at McCune Sand Prairie near Mineral

With the onset of much awaited fall foliage comes a different type of beauty. As I drive to and from work, my mouth gapes in wonder at the lovely diversity of not only color, but also shapes, sizes, and textures of the trees, especially my favorites, oak and hickory trees. When you see a hillside dotted with trees, it’s like looking at a crayon box full of vivid yellows, oranges, reds, greens, browns, and all colors between. During summer, the tree foliage looks pretty similar, but once the days grow shorter and cooler, the differences between the trees become more apparent. Finally, the late fall winds and cooler temperatures bring about a starker beauty, and we are left with the bark and branches. 

Rustic Corncrib in Putnam County

While we may long for sandy white beaches, tall snowy mountains, or the thrill of a foreign and ancient city, we can still take a mini vacation without leaving the county. All we need are good observation skills, and you never know what is waiting to be discovered on our local backroads.  


Spiderweb and Stiff Goldenrod at Munson Cemetery Prairie near Cambridge
Rock Formations at Nachusa Grasslands -- Stone Barn Savanna

White Oaks at Mount Bloom Cemetery near Tiskilwa

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Rocky Mountain High


View from Lily Lake

My family recently visited Colorado for our family vacation. It had been several years since I had visited the Rocky Mountains, and I was excited to see them again. Of course, the mountains themselves are quite spectacular, but all the mountain lakes, streams, canyons, waterfalls, and other scenery are cool as well. However, the living aspects—plants and wildlife—are their own draw. We were fortunate to see several wildlife species, and the increased rainfall this summer made wildflowers abundant and gorgeous. I snapped multiple shots of them throughout our time in Colorado and on the way home in Nebraska. 
Bear Lake

We spent two days exploring Rocky Mountain National Park and could have easily spent more time there. We enjoyed hikes around Lily Lake and Bear Lake, plus other areas on the first day, then took the Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road the second day with multiple stops along both routes. Since this is such a popular park, planning ahead to make sure you have reservations and timed entries when needed is essential. Driving through Big Thompson Canyon was another treat. I’m in awe of the beautiful rock formations along this route.


Beaver Meadows
We decided to visit Eldorado Canyon State Park the next day. To quote my daughter’s friend who was travelling with us for two days, “you don’t have to work for this scenery.” It was right there in front of us. After a bumpy drive through the tiny town leading up to the park entrance, we were beginning to wonder if the park would be worth the trip. But gorgeous red rock formations greeted us as soon as we entered the park. All we had to do was park and walk along the road to see stunning views of the mountain stream and canyon walls.

 It seems like busy schedules and not enough time and money are always roadblocks to longer and more frequent travels even if we don’t actually run into actual roadblocks while on vacations. But we enjoy travelling when we can and are always looking ahead to the next adventure!

Alpine Wildflowers

Chimney Rock

Eldorado State Park

Eldorado State Park

Scotts Bluff National Monmument 

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Monday, May 15, 2023

Enjoying those Early Bloomers

Wood Betony
I recently had the opportunity to visit Nachusa Grasslands, located east of Dixon. This Nature Conservancy area has been on my bucket list for quite some time. It was an amazing place to visit, with its beautifully restored remnant prairies, along with a wetland and savanna, not to mention bison grazing on the prairies. Normally at this time of year I am still snooping around in the woodlands looking for spring ephemerals, but now I am also starting to venture into the prairie to see some early bloomers.

Wild Lupine
Many of the seed mixes we prescribe through our office for the Conservation Reserve Program and found in other restored prairies contain more common species and not many early blooming species. The mixes usually consist of summer forbs and later summer grass species. Even though mixes are starting to get more diverse—especially for the pollinator mixes—seeing the rarer early bloomers is a special treat for me.

It takes less than an hour to reach Nachusa from my house, so I know I will be visiting again. Since I had not taken time to do much research online before I left, I missed seeing many of the natural areas on this more than 4,000 acre site. However, what I did see impressed me, with one of the highlights, seeing six “new-to-me” wildflower species. I wandered around the prairie at the Visitor Center, an open air display area, looking at the spring species popping up in the recently burned acreage. Shooting Stars, Blue-eyed Grass, Wild Lupine, Golden Alexander, Violet Wood Sorrel, Wood Betony, Arrow-Leaved Violet, Kittentails, and Pussytoes were some beautiful and interesting wildflowers in bloom. Because the area had been freshly burned, these low to the ground forbs were easy to spot.

Once done with that portion, I turned to the north and ventured closer to where the bison were grazing and walking near the pond. Even from the distance I could watch them lumber around, graceful in their gait for such large bovines, and I could hear their sounds. Even though I have seen bison before in parks out west, it was a delight to see them in a natural setting in our Prairie State.
Violet Wood Sorrel

Pussy Toes
Once I’d seen some of the prairie, I ventured into the savanna area. Even though I thought I knew what to expect, it was much more than that. Having over a hundred acres to myself as I wandered along the trail and jumping off trail for a few photo opportunities, I was mesmerized not only by the plants I saw, but also by the plants I didn’t see. There were no maple trees choking out the oaks and hickories and no garlic mustard plants choking out the native wildflowers. It felt strange to see the same Shooting Stars I’d seen in the open prairie growing in a more shaded and wooded area. It also felt odd to see Mayapples, Wild Geraniums, and other woodland species growing in full sun. I loved the overall peaceful atmosphere of the more open woodland.
Shooting Star

I thought it was interesting to see a large culvert that acted as a travel tunnel underneath the road for bison to use when crossing from a north pasture to one to the south. I plan to revisit Nachusa to hike the wetland loop near the savanna loop. There are also hundreds of other prairie acres to explore to the north. Maybe they contain the same species I experienced near the visitor center, but I’m guessing there are many more. Since there are a total of more than 700 plant species on the Nachusa site, there is definitely another adventure or two waiting to happen in my future. I encourage you to visit this area to view plants and animals we don’t normally have a chance to see in a natural setting that more closely resembles Illinois in the past, before our rich prairie soils were converted to other uses. They don’t call Illinois the Prairie State for nothing.

Shagbark Hickory