Susan’s Carriage

August 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

photo by Justin Blanford

Photo by Justin Blanford

I led my first “Living the Wright Way” public tour last Saturday.  The in-depth visit to the Dana-Thomas House ended on a dramatic note thanks to site manager Justin Blanford and staff interpreter Chuck Hargan (pictured) who pulled Susan’s carriage from its storage space into the parking lot so our guests could inspect it closely.

As far as we know, Susan owned three carriages.  One was a small vehicle for hauling heavy objects, and another was an elegant reproduction of the landau-style carriage used by Teddy Roosevelt.  The former was destroyed in a fire, and the fate of the latter is unknown.  The well-restored carriage currently on the site was Susan’s “everyday” vehicle. The four-wheeled Studebaker brougham boasts tufted leather upholstery, a satin ceiling, and glass panel windows.  Only displayed on special occasions, the carriage has resided in the on-site garage since the Dana Thomas House Foundation (DTHF) purchased it and brought it home in 1986.

The carriage had a long journey.  State Senator Carl Priehs of Pana, Illinois, bought it at the six day auction of Susan’s possessions in 1943.  He used it for parades and special events in Pana until 1965 when he sold it to carriage museum owner Joe Wright who later sold it to carriage restorer Alvin Plank of Arcola, Illinois.  Robert Prutsman became the next owner in 1975, and he sold it to the DTHF.

As long as the weather cooperates, we plan to exhibit Susan’s carriage at the end of each of the “Living the Wright Way” tours.  Currently the tours are scheduled at 10:15 on August 31 and September 14 and 28.  There is a $20 suggested donation.  Reservations can be made at 217-782-6776.

Another Myth Busted

August 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

I led my first “Living the Wright Way” tour two weeks ago. Most members of the group were experienced interpreters of the Dana-Thomas House, so the tour was a “dress rehearsal” for me.  When we were in the gallery, one of the group asked, “I always say that Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg read their poetry here.  Is that true?” I realized that I too had often made that statement but had never verified it, so I started some research.

 I knew from interviews and letters that Vachel Lindsay, Springfield’s renowned poet, was a friend of Susan, but I couldn’t say that Sandburg was a guest in the Lawrence House with complete assurance.  Unfortunately, my research revealed that Carl Sandburg probably did not appear at the house.

Sandburg’s words were familiar to Springfield citizens.  His poetry was often quoted in the Springfield newspapers, and in 1918 he briefly became what we now call a foreign correspondent for Springfield’s State Journal. Leaving the staff of the Chicago Daily News, Sandburg traveled to Norway and Sweden to report the news from Germany and Russia to a number of American newspapers (including the Journal) which had formed a syndicate.  When he returned to the States, he continued to file news stories from and about Chicago in Springfield papers.  However, he did not visit Springfield until November 26, 1921.

By 1921 Carl Sandburg was an international celebrity. As one of America’s leading poets, he charmed audiences all over the world.  He did not Sandburgdisappoint Springfield on that Saturday afternoon when, under the auspices of the Springfield Woman’s Club, he presented a lecture, poetry recitations, and folk songs at the Young Women’s Christian Association auditorium.  That evening Sandburg gave readings at Springfield’s two facilities for disabled veterans.  According to the newspapers, he was a house guest of Vachel Lindsay and his mother that week-end.  I could find no other accounts of visits to Springfield by the famed poet.

When I concluded in earlier posts that John Phillip Sousa did not visit the Lawrence house (click here) and most Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture never left the house (click here), I realized that just because stories have been passed down for years, they are not necessarily true. I wonder what myth I’ll bust next!

State Fair Chips

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Entrance, Illinois State Fair Grounds Springfield

Each August a unique phenomenon called Fair Week hits Springfield.  Actually 10 days, the “week” hosts visitors from all over the state who enjoy exhibits, competitions, entertainment, and food.  We’re in the midst of the 2013 celebration, and those of us who call Springfield home are grumbling about traffic jams, profiting from out-of-town visitors, and enjoying the tradition.

 Although the First World War was raging in Europe in 1918, the Illinois State Fair was the festive celebration that we still enjoy today. Running from August 9 to August 26, the 1918 event was called the Illinois Centennial State Fair commemorating the centennial of Illinois statehood.  Some highlights of those two weeks include the dedication of the new Conservation Building, a speech by Teddy Roosevelt, and the sale of Liberty Chips by young Springfield girls.

A reporter explains in the August 27, 1918, Illinois State Journal:

“Liberty Chips” are potato chips and were sold in attractive blue and white bags, carrying out the Centennial color scheme, for ten cents, each bag being filled with the delicious tasty chips which took the place of candy and other sweetmeats, thereby saving sugar and at the same time aiding in converting the people to more extensive use of potatoes.

Mrs. Susan Lawrence Gehrmann was chairman of the “Liberty Chips” committee and handled the campaign in this city with the assistance of about thirty-five women and a large number of young girls who made the sales, carrying the baskets of bags of chips into theatre lobbies, on street corners, and throughout the Fair grounds.

Conceived and promoted by the Woman’s Committee of the Illinois State Council of Defense to raise money for the war effort, Springfield was the second Illinois city to conduct such a campaign (after Chicago, of course).  Although I could not find where the potato chips were made, I discovered that the young girls filled over a thousand bags in the library of the Lawrence House and left a big mess for the maid to clean up. The effort was worth it because the project earned $1,019. Perhaps the 1918 Springfield citizens did not yet complain about traffic jams, but they seemed to enjoy the tradition, and, under Susan’s leadership, profited from the visitors just as we do today.

Celebrating Emancipation

August 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

A number of Springfield organizations are collaborating to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this year.  A day-long series of events at the Old State Capitol and Oak Ridge Cemetery today highlight that historic milestone (click here for more information).

 In 1913, 100 years ago, Springfield citizens were also remembering the emancipation of the slaves, but they were making plans for a larger celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th amendment two years later.  I explain in Chapter 10 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:

On May 9, 1913, Lawrence [Susan’s second husband] sang at the “Illinois Half Century Freedom Exposition” at the Lincoln Colored Home [a pet project of Susan’s mother].  Governor Edward F. Dunne and a former minister to Haiti were speakers for the occasion.  The purpose of the event was to celebrate the anniversary of the home as well as to generate interest in pending legislation that proposed a 1915 statewide exposition to acknowledge 50 years of Negro emancipation.

 The legislation passed in June 1913, and House Bill 919 created the eight-member Illinois Commission Half-Century Anniversary of Negro Freedom with a $25,000 appropriation to “arrange for and conduct during the year 1915 at a place to be selected by said commission, an exhibition and celebration to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the freeing of the Negro from slavery.” Susan Lawrence Joergen-Dahl was the only woman appointed by Governor Dunne to the Commission.  She was elected vice-president of the group, and her friend Reverend Samuel Fallows was elected president.  The Commission hired staff and leased office space in Chicago as it began plans for a 1915 commemorative celebration.

 Although she worked tirelessly for the cause, Susan could not stay with the project to the end.  After her husband’s tragic death in July, 1913, she suffered from a combination of exhaustion, severe stress, and chronic colds.  Susan was forced to resign from the Commission under doctor’s orders in March, 1914.

  The Commission’s work evolved into the Lincoln Jubilee and Half-Century Anniversary Exposition.  Held at the Coliseum in Chicago in the fall of 1915, the celebration of 50 years of emancipation included exhibits, demonstrations, and entertainment from all over the world (click here for a detailed report).

13th amendment 

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