Four score and three years ago, a devoted father and oil magnate brought forth on this leafy block in a lovely Inland Empire town a new museum, conceived in …
Sorry, I can’t keep this up.
Bastardizing the Gettysburg Address is both too hackneyed and, perhaps, a mite disrespectful to the memory not only of Abraham Lincoln – one of the presidents we honored last week with a mattress sale – but also of oil baron, philanthropist and Redlands legend Robert Watchorn, who in 1932 built a shrine to our 16th president (fittingly called the Lincoln Memorial Shrine) to commemorate Watchorn’s son, who died young.
Limited in size – just the octagonal main room and two small wings – but not in scope and material, the shrine is something of a big deal among historians and academics, drawing the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin and James M. McPherson and many a doctorate-seeking grad student to its vast underground archives, as well as generations of San Bernardino County elementary schoolkids and Civil War buffs who follow their Google Maps to the Orange Street exit off Interstate 10.
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Don McCue, curator for 26 years before assuming directorship of the adjoining A.K. Smiley Public Library, doesn’t keep attendance figures and geographic breakdowns of visitors close at hand. Believe him, though, when he says that, throughout February each year for Presidents Day and during summer vacations, Redlands is the place to be.
Let me give you a moment to let this sink in, way down in your basal ganglia: Redlands is a Civil War draw – honest, Abe.
After all, this is not exactly the (Red)Lands of Lincoln. There was no Battle of Redlands or Siege of Colton. We can understand museums dedicated to Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., or his native Kentucky. Gettysburg or D.C.? Yup and yup.
But the only Lincoln memorial located west of the Mississippi River is in Redlands?
Docent Bruce Wick anticipates the one-word question and smiles knowingly.
“Actually, a lot of people from Redlands ask that, too,” he says.
I will now attempt, in one fact-bloated paragraph, to explain what the shrine’s website devotes much bandwidth to detailing: Watchorn apparently was a self-made man, like Lincoln, going from coal miner to union boss to immigration official on Ellis Island under Teddy Roosevelt to oil wildcatter to tycoon to philanthropist who “wintered” in temperate Redlands. Watchorn and his son, Emory, idolized Lincoln, and after Emory died from an illness contracted while flying combat missions in World War I, the elder Watchorn spent $60,000 to erect the Lincoln shrine.
OK, so I didn’t say it was going to be a short paragraph.
In any event, this was no vanity project for Watchorn, certainly nothing screaming “roadside attraction” – unless you consider architect Elmer Grey’s other handiworks, the Pasadena Playhouse and Beverly Hills Hotel, mere tourist traps.
Watchorn donated his own vast Lincolnalia, including the marble bust of the younger, clean-shaven “candidate” Lincoln, by noted sculptor George Grey Barnard. It sits dead center, and elegantly back-lit, in the octagon. Adorning the dome ceiling of the octagon is a mural by Southern California illustrator Dean Cornwell, whose history-of-California mural graces the walls of the Los Angeles Public Library. In his Lincoln shrine work, Cornwell painted representations of Lincoln’s characteristics, such as tolerance, courage and justice, but also gave equal billing to both sides in the Civil War, panels alternating between stars-and-stripes and stars-and-bars.
Donations from Watchorn’s collection and those of friends in high places – gentlemen by the name of Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt (Franklin) – make the shrine a working archive, as well. Those presidents donated books from the era, and other collectors and historians have contributed artifacts ranging from iron cannonballs to amputation saws used by doctors in the field to hand-written letters by Lincoln, his wife (Mary Todd Lincoln) and generals such as Grant and Sherman. Books available for scholars now number more than 10,000, Wick said.
Over the years, too, many descendants of Civil War veterans have passed along war mementos, everything from a Union uniform and medal of bravery to flags from both sides. McCue said the shrine has a small budget in which to purchase Lincoln and Civil War artifacts. Some are scholarly, such as hand-written missives from soldiers on the battlefield to wives at home; some whimsical, like the partially eaten hardtack cracker, well-preserved after all these years.
“That’s from the National Biscuit Co.,” McCue said. “It’s been displayed on and off for my 28 years here – it resonates especially with kids – and it hasn’t deteriorated at all. I think it’s something about not using leavening in the flour.”
While kids gawk at the crumbling cracker, they might also want to take a look at one of the few surviving quilts (only 10 of 150,000 are accounted for, Wick said) that Northern women made for Union soldiers to stay warm in battle.
“They were called U.S. Sanitary Commission quilts,” he said. “Someone would do an individual square – each lady would sign their name on the square – and put it together and ship it off to the federal government, which would stamp ‘U.S. Sanitary Commission’ on it and send it to soldiers in the war. … Why is this one is still here? When (Union) Capt. (Robert Emmett) Fisk received it, he was checking it out. In this one, there was a little opening in it, and he pulled out the name and address of (one Fanny Chester), the teenage daughter of the lady who put this together. That was quite audacious. Fisk wrote her and she said, ‘Now what do I do?’ She turned to her older sister (Lizzie) and said, ‘You write him.’ The sister did. And, long story short, they got married. That’s probably why (the quilt) is in such good shape. He kept it close to him.”
A great-granddaughter of Fisk donated the quilt, quite a coup. Almost as valuable is the original Norman Rockwell painting, “The Long Shadow of Lincoln,” finished in 1945. The Watchorns were acquaintances of Rockwell, and he agreed to have the painting hang in the shrine.
“Mr. Rockwell normally did slice-of-life works,” Wick said. “This one is noteworthy because it’s his only public symbolic work.”
World War II winding down, the painting is a pastiche of images, ranging from immigrants being welcomed, to people praying, to students being tutored to a soldier missing a leg next to an able-bodied civilian holding blueprints to rebuild the country from the Depression.
“Overshadowing everything, up there in the left-hand corner (of the painting), is the partial bust of Lincoln,” Wick said. “It was Mr. Rockwell’s thought that President Lincoln’s ideals were still influencing America.”
As true today as in 1945 or 1865, Lincoln’s influence spans generations and spreads far and wide – even so far west of the Mississippi to a Civil War “site” in the Inland Empire.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN SHRINE
125 West Vine St.,
Hours: 1-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
Information: (909) 798-7632; www.lincolnshrine.org