Lincoln spent night before famed debate in Morris

Shaving Abraham Lincoln just prior to the Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Ottawa was a great event for a Morris barber 150 years ago. “Mr. Lincoln got into the chair, and I knew then he was a big man,” George Washington “Wash” Foster, an African-American from Ohio, recalled in a newspaper account in 1917. “I knew then he was a big man. Not as big as he was afterward, but a mighty big man to be in Morris in those days.” The first of the nine Lincoln-Douglas Debates took place in Washington Park in Ottawa on Aug. 21, 1858. A weekend celebration marking the event is ending today in Ottawa as part of the Reunion Tour 2008, which includes re-enactors discussing some of the important issues that were part of the debates. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of formal political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in a campaign for one of Illinois' two United States Senate seats. Although Lincoln lost the election, these debates launched him into national prominence, which eventually led to his election as President of the United States. Local historian Ken Sereno said Lincoln arrived in Morris the day before the debate, and stayed overnight at the home of his friend, Judge William T. Hopkins. The Hopkins home is a part of the building that housed the former Morris Lincoln Nursing Home at 916 W. Fremont Ave. “The next morning (Aug. 21), he and the judge came downtown to Wash's barber shop,” said Sereno. “The barber shop was located in the basement of what is now The Fabric Center at 301 Liberty St.” Lincoln proceeded to ask Foster about himself - such things as where he was born. “I thought he was trying to catch me in something, so I told him his truth and said I was born in Ohio,” Foster was quoted as saying in the account of the incident in the Morris Daily Herald of 1917. “Mr. Lincoln said he certainly was born where the trees grow tall. He wasn't no sawed-off himself.” Foster said in the account that, after Lincoln left his shop, he closed it for the day and went to Ottawa himself for the debate. “Mr. Douglas spoke first,” Foster noted in the account. “He was a little small fellow, but mighty big around the middle. Mr. Lincoln then talked, and there was a great discussion. There was a might crowd there from all parts of the state, and mostly for Mr. Lincoln.” Lincoln left Morris for Ottawa by train. Sereno said Lincoln rode to the site of the debate at Washington Park in a horse-drawn carriage now housed in the La Salle County Historical Society Museum in Utica. Foster died Sept. 17, 1917, at the age of 95. He had lived on Franklin Street, near Main Street. The home was abandoned after his death, and burned by authorities on June 30, 1920. The 150th anniversary celebration will continue through October in the communities where the subsequent debates took place, including Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton. Lincoln and Douglas are being portrayed by George Buss and Tim Conner, respectively. Introductions are by Ed Finch, who also is serving as moderator. The Reunion Tour 2008 project was organized by the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition, the debate communities, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Illinois Bureau of Tourism, and the Lincoln-Douglas Society. The coalition manages the newly designated Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, preserving and promoting the Lincoln Legacy sites across Illinois.