Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Honest Abe's Madison Adventures

Abraham Lincoln seems to be popping up all over.

Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” seven years in the making, is cleaning up at box offices in theaters across the land. Preparations are under way for a big 150th anniversary celebration of The Great Emancipator’s Gettysburg Address, a bit of rhetoric we had to memorize in grade school. My local newspaper chimed in the other day with a full-page description of Abe’s 1856 visit to Kalamazoo, the only time he set foot in Michigan.

And the University of Wisconsin issued various news stories describing its relationship to the famous president.

UW band members ham it up with Abe
“Honest Abe” has been something special on the Madison campus since 1909, 100 years after Lincoln’s birth. To mark the anniversary, university officials unveiled a large statue on Bascom Hill of a sitting Lincoln. Today Abe still sits squarely in front of the old administration building atop the hill. Over the years, he has been subjected to numerous student pranks and the subject of several fanciful stories.

Many believe the UW statue is modeled on the more-famous seated Abe at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Not so. It is a replica of a statue erected in Lincoln’s hometown of Hodgenville, KY. A Wisconsin alumnus bought the farm where Lincoln was born and commissioned creation of the original.

A frosty Abe got student help
Wisconsin students have done their best to make Lincoln feel at home in Madison. They’ve decorated him with various hats and costumes. During one especially cold winter, a pair of earmuffs helped Abe survive. Of course, the earmuffs were cardinal, one of the school's colors.

Politics on at least one occasion got into the decorating act.  Back in the 1950s infamous Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy placed the university among the institutions he accused of harboring communists (without citing any evidence). Someone gave Abe a coat of red paint, either in sympathy with or protest of the charges.

Wisconsin historians cite several connections to Lincoln and his political associates. Ripon is just 75 miles from Madison. The small city claims to be the birthplace of the Republican Party. It hosted an 1854 meeting of the group that founded the party.

The university, and many others, got a huge boost from the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which Lincoln approved. It allowed the school to buy a 195-acre “experimental farm” in 1866 for $28,000. That land now is the major part of the campus. The site of the university’s football field, Camp Randall, was a Union soldier training camp during the War Between the States. It also served for a time as a camp for Confederate prisoners.

A new grad courts Abe in front of the balcony made famous by a long line of fraternity Firemen.
Recent university stories emphasize two Bascom Hill statue traditions. New graduates believe they will fulfill career goals if they climb onto Lincoln’s lap and whisper their aspirations into his ear. Some think a little kiss on his cheek will help their cause. Alums and students alike visiting the hill believe good luck will be theirs if they rub Abe’s left foot.

Understandably, university accounts omit some of the racier myths involving the statue. In my day, students understood that Abe would leap to his feet if a female virgin walked in front of him. The coeds outwitted the perpetrators of that legend. During four years of regularly plodding up Bascom Hill I never saw a girl in front of Abe. They always were careful to walk behind him.

One fraternity (not mine) once or twice a year pulled off the most well-known initiation stunt on campus right behind the sitting Lincoln. From the group of would-be members the actives selected one “Fireman.” Around noon when crowds of students were on the hill, the brethren somehow sneaked the Fireman onto the Bascom Hall balcony directly behind the Lincoln statue. Wearing an appropriate red hard-hat, the Fireman pretended to crank a siren while he wailed siren-like sounds at the top of his voice.

The fraternity’s pledges were eager to earn the Fireman designation. Active members conferred the “honor” after measuring the length of the initiate’s . . . (you know what).

Abe is said to have grinned when the Fireman sounded his siren. Honestly, Abe, did you?


Little bug said...

I really enjoyed this blog, even though I have heard you tell the tales on numerous occasions...they bear repeating. :)

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Many folks claim Lincoln. Many also forget he was from Kentucky a slave state and his brother-in-law was the Confederate officer in charge of the prison in Richmond. Perhaps that was a factor in Mary Todd Lincoln's depression. The Civin War really did divide families. Dianne

Dave Tippets said...

Why isn't anyone pushing to bring back Lincoln logs? The time is right.

Dick Klade said...

Interesting, Dianne. Didn't know about Lincoln's BIL. I think you are on to something with your observation about Mary Todd Lincoln's depression.

Kay said...

So this is why so many Illinois students want to go to the University of Wisconsin. Sounds like a very fun school.

I haven't seen Lincoln yet, but I certainly plan to.

PiedType said...

Ahhh, takes me back to my college days. So many good memories. No Lincoln, however, at the Univ's of Okla. and Colo. Love the gal sitting in Lincoln's lap!

Bill Tishler said...

I really enjoyed this post. It gave a nice overview of UW's relationship to the statue and some of the lore about it.

joared said...

Enjoyed this Lincoln and Wisconsin account. Hadn't realized he even had any connection there -- always thought of Ill., Ky.

Seems every Univ. has all sorts of interesting events, initiations, myths and the like. Fun reading your account of them.

Tom Sightings said...

We connect Lincoln so much with the Civil War that we forget he did a lot of other things as well, like the college grants. And the railroads, don't forget the railroads. But in any case, I'm sure he would appreciate your humor!

Anonymous said...

Did the young lady pictured sitting on Abe's lap approach from the front or side of the statue? Or, doesn't it matter nowadays?