People pass by the two-story, wood-frame building at 200 S. Main St. in Athens every day without knowing that the structure has major connections to the 16th president.
People pass by the two-story, wood-frame building at 200 S. Main St. in Athens every day without knowing that the structure has major connections to Abraham Lincoln.
And that’s the frustration: They don’t know, and they do pass by.
Especially on the outside, the building that houses the Abraham Lincoln Long Nine Museum hasn’t changed much in the last 175-plus years. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a stop on the Looking for Lincoln Story Trail and has a prime location between two hubs for Lincoln tourism — Springfield and Petersburg.
But the Long Nine Museum often goes unnoticed by sightseers and central Illinoisans both.
"The Col. Matthew Rogers building has been overlooked as one of the greatest original Lincoln sites," said owner John Eden, a Lake Petersburg resident who retired in 1991 from the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Athens High School teacher John Tobias takes his students to the Long Nine Museum nearly every year. He said some pupils know the museum is there and "have discussed it in their Illinois government or history classes," but few have visited the site before the class trips.
"It's a great museum," Tobias said. "Many kids are unaware of local history, so this gives them that connection. When they realize they're walking the same streets that Lincoln walked, it strikes a note with them."
Constructed in 1831 and 1832 for Col. Matthew Rogers, the building initially housed a dry goods business and post office on the first floor, with a public meeting room upstairs and a full basement below.
Not only is Lincoln said to have frequented the store/post office while working as a postmaster in nearby New Salem in the early 1830s, he surveyed the road that runs in front of it. A congratulatory banquet also was held in the second-floor hall in 1837 for the Long Nine - the state legislators, including Lincoln, who succeeded in passing a bill to move the seat of state government from Vandalia to Springfield.
Rogers had been a colonel in the New York Militia during the War of 1812. In 1818, he moved his family to Illinois, bringing with him a trunk of books, according to "Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln" by Henry B. Rankin, Rogers' grandson.
Rogers served as Athens' first justice of the peace and first postmaster, setting up in his "sawn board cabin" a post office that eventually was moved to the family's store.
According to Rankin's account, Lincoln borrowed books from Rogers, and the colonel's daughter, Arminda Rogers Rankin (a teacher and Henry Rankin's mother), tutored Ann Rutledge, said to have been Lincoln's first love.
As a deputy surveyor in 1834, Lincoln surveyed the relocation of part of the road between Sangamo Town and Athens, setting the survey stone in the center of what now is the intersection of Main and Jefferson streets in front of Rogers' store.
A sign outside the museum, installed by the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association in 2005, recognizes Lincoln's work.
Inside the facility, the post office has been re-created. Several audio-narrated dioramas, carved by the late Springfield artist Art Sieving, provide a glimpse into Lincoln's time in Athens and what then was Sangamon County.
Numerous artifacts, including old tools, pottery, portraits and even the brick fireplace from Rogers' original homestead, are on display. There also is a collection of framed C&IM Railroad calendar art that features scenes from Lincoln's life.
On the second floor, Lincoln collector and artist Lloyd Ostendorf's large painting of the Long Nine banquet graces the wall above a long table. (Two of the delegation - John Dawson and Job Fletcher - are missing in the picture. "They couldn't make it" to the banquet, Eden said.)
Among the many toasts given at the Aug. 3, 1837, dinner and recorded days later in the Sangamo Journal was one by Robert L. Wilson. He said Lincoln "has fulfilled the expectations of his friends and disappointed the hopes of his enemies."
Merchant Josiah Francis purchased the building from Rogers before the banquet. However, when Francis became delinquent on payments, Rogers hired attorney Lincoln to sue Francis for repossession. Lincoln won that suit.
Louis Salzenstein bought the property at auction after Rogers' death in 1848 and attached a two-story brick building to the store's east end around 1865. The structure was sold to the Van Meter Masonic Lodge in 1913 and was used for meetings and other activities, including a 100-year commemoration in 1937 of the Long Nine banquet.
During rehabilitation work in 1972, the openings between the adjoining buildings were closed.
Eden acquired the original store in 1988, and, except for help from his family, the museum since has been virtually a one-man operation.
"Having grown up here, I've had a great interest in seeing that the Colonel Rogers building and the town receive recognition for their Lincoln heritage," Eden said. "Abraham Lincoln walked the streets of Athens five years before he surveyed Petersburg. He did so many things in our community."
With a new coat of paint on the storefront and the focus this year on Lincoln's 200th birthday, Eden hopes the summer-admission-only museum will have more visitors.
"I really feel positive about it," he said, though there are no plans to be open during next month's bicentennial festivities.
Despite the site's low profile, Eden notes that in the past 20 years it has played host to visitors from about 50 countries, including Japan, China, Korea and Spain.
"A little girl came from Barcelona. She said, 'Lincoln really was here.' I'll never forget that," Eden said. "It made her day."
Tobias said Eden deserves credit for his work at the museum, and he hopes the museum gets more exposure.
"This could be the centerpiece of the town," Tobias said.
Ann Gorman can be reached through the State Journal-Register metro desk at (217) 788-1517.