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February 5, 2004

Plains Folk: President’s Day

Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University

Along Highway 81 in northern Kansas you see the billboard directing attention five miles west to the town of Delphos. The sign depicts a kindly President Abraham Lincoln bending down to greet an admiring child. It informs us that Delphos is the home of “Lincoln’s Little Girl,” where you can “view the Lincoln letters.”

Well, sort of. The letters aren’t there, but Delphos was indeed the home of Grace Bedell, the little correspondent who advised candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860 to improve his looks by growing a beard.

The story is rather well known. Grace Bedell was 11 years old and living with her parents in Westfield, N. Y., when Lincoln sought the presidency in 1860. Little Grace, after studying a picture of the Republican candidate, concluded that he needed an image makeover specifically that he should grow a beard to fill out his craggy face.

If Lincoln were to grow a beard, she wrote him in a letter, she would try to get her brothers to vote for him. Beyond that, she urged him to consider, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you.”

Lincoln answered the child’s letter cordially but noncommittally, wondering whether growing a beard in middle age would be considered an affectation. But he did it. Following his election he happened to travel through Westfield and asked to see his “little correspondent.” When she met him on the station platform, Lincoln pointed to his bearded face and said, “You see, I let these whiskers grow for you, Grace.” Today statues of Abe and Grace commemorate this poignant moment in Westfield.

Grace grew up to marry a Union army veteran named George Billings. They moved to Delphos in 1870 or 1871. George farmed his soldier’s homestead and after that went into banking. He died in 1926, Grace in 1936.

Lincoln’s letter of reply to Grace passed to her son, George Jr., but on his death was auctioned off for $20,000. A private collector still has it. The Detroit Public Library holds her letter to Lincoln.

Delphos is one of those country towns centering on a town square with gap-toothed business blocks all around. The “Lincoln’s Little Correspondent” monument, a granite obelisk, stands in the northwest corner of the square. It reads, “Delphos / The Home of Lincoln’s Little Correspondent / Grace Bedell Billings / 1848-1936.” Legend on the side notes that Grace married, moved to Kansas in about 1871, and lived out the rest of her life in Delphos.
OK, so you can’t see the letters themselves, but there are facsimiles set into the monument. If you do make your way over to Delphos, you might find other things of interest and, in their way, of consequence. You’ll find the town square easy, just turn toward the water tower. If you’re lucky, kids will be climbing the playground equipment and shooting hoops on the outdoor court. Sit on the bandstand and soak up sun. Have your own little Lincoln moment.

Drive out west of town to the Zebulon Pike monument, erected in 1962 in a remarkable likeness to a barbeque grill. Enjoy the vista from the hill, look back on the town. On your way out drive by the cemetery and contemplate the grave of Anna Brewster Morgan, a captive of the Cheyenne retrieved by Custer in 1869 and brought back to an unhappy life among whites.

People ask me sometimes, how do you find enough stories to keep writing those columns? I always say there’s one up every section road. That’s a gross under-estimation.

Web users, see Delphos photos at: www.plainsfolk.com/weblog/blogger.html

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Source: Tom Isern, (701) 799-2942, isern@plainsfolk.com
Editor: Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.nodak.edu

Click here for a TIF photo of Tom Isern that is suitable for printing.
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