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
Tom Isern, (701) 799-2942, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor: Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, email@example.com
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