WIUM Tristates Public Radio

A Different View of Lincoln’s New Salem

Mar 11, 2015

The Western Illinois Museum’s current display, Greatest Hits of Our History III: A 40th Birthday Celebration Exhibit, features a diorama of the New Salem Village that dominates the museum’s exhibition room.  It measures 23 feet by 12 feet.

“There are 33 boards … we kind of had to put them together like a puzzle. There are numbers and things on them,” said Sue Scott, Director of the Western Illinois Museum.

The diorama includes log cabins, horse drawn wagons, cows, landscape features, and more.  However, Scott said it’s not an exact replica of the village, which existed from 1828 to 1840. 

“I think it’s a cross between folk art and a diorama. I love it because of that, because it has a lot of personality,” Scott said.

New Salem is significant because Abraham Lincoln lived there from 1831 to 1837.

“He starts to study law. He is the postmaster. He runs for his first public office while at this community. He also fights in the Blackhawk War,” said Scott, who noted he also owned a couple stores in the village.

“So it’s sort of a formative time for Lincoln. And I think that’s why it (New Salem) has become a historical site in our state.”

The Maker of the Model

The diorama was created by George Berry of Pekin, IL, and donated to the museum shortly after it opened in the mid-1970s on the third floor of Sherman Hall at Western Illinois University.

Scott said Berry was a farmer and he worked for Caterpillar. He was also a history buff who started building the piece on a snowy winter day after reading about log cabins. Scott said Berry traveled around the Midwest with the diorama to teach people about New Salem. He eventually grew weary of the travel.

“Since it was in the museum and the museum showed interest I think he decided to give it to us and we’re grateful for that,” Scott said.

This is the first time the complete model has been set up in the museum’s current home at the corner of Washington and Lafayette Streets, one block off the courthouse square in downtown Macomb.

Other Features of the Museum’s Greatest Hits

Greatest Hits of Our History III: A 40th Birthday Celebration Exhibit remains on display through May 2, 2015. Admission to the museum is free; donations are accepted.

The exhibit also showcases a buffalo skin coat that Scott feels speaks to the harvesting of buffalo to near-extinction. 

She said another favorite item is the “Utica crib,” which she described as “a frightening looking object.”  The cribs were first used in the 1840s.

“It’s an all wooden crib with a lid on it that was used in insane asylums.” She said it’s not clear where the museum’s artifact was used.

Scott said the museum has also mounted some text at “kid height” to make it easier for children to learn about exhibits. One current wall text explains how to build a log cabin. And some logs are on display to give visitors a sense of scale.