Who knew a president – especially one as well known as Abraham Lincoln – could be represented by fruit? But that’s just one of the ways in which the city of Lincoln, Illinois, stands apart from all others. In addition to hosting the country’s only example of fruit-based presidential representational art, it’s the only town to be named after Abraham Lincoln a) while he was alive and b) with his consent and participation.
Technically the town isn’t named for a president – it was founded in 1853, when Lincoln was but a former congressman and a prominent southern Illinois lawyer. Still, he was a big wheel in that part of the state, and so the town founders wrote to the man and asked if he’d be willing to be their namesake. “Nothing with the name of Lincoln ever amounted to much,” Abe joked, but he said yes and promised to be on hand for the christening ceremony.
Said ceremony took place on August 27, 1853; the sign behind the statue says that Lincoln gave brief, fruit-related remarks to kick things off: “Gentlemen,” he began, “I am requested by the proprietors of the town site to christen it. I have selected the juice of a melon for that purpose, pouring it on the ground. Therefore, in your presence and hearing, I now christen this town site. Its name is Lincoln and soon to be named the permanent capital of Logan County. I have also prepared a feast for the occasion.” You see, Lincoln had brought a whole pile of watermelons and turned the christening ceremony into a raucous party!
In the years to come, the whole of America would get busy recognizing Lincoln with statues, memorials, pennies, bobblehead dolls, and Steven Spielberg movies, but the citizens of Lincoln wanted the world to know that they were into Abe Lincoln before being into Abe Lincoln was cool. So in 1964, the local Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary clubs commissioned a steel sculpture of Lincoln’s christening watermelon.
By the way, this melon-christening business appears only to work if you’re Abraham Lincoln. My son dropped a piece of watermelon on the ground last summer and a town did not start. Oddly, though, he dropped half a hot dog bun on the kitchen floor and a municipal water district took effect. But I swept the floor later that night without knowing what had happened and the district went away as quickly as it came. Boy did it serve its constituents well, though.
Abraham Lincoln returned to Lincoln, Illinois, a number of times, including a campaign speech during his run for US Senate in 1858, and a visit in November 1860, as he rode the train to Chicago on his way to the White House and the enormous task of averting the breakup of the Union; you can forgive him, then, for not bringing any watermelons for those occasions. On his last trip through town, Lincoln was in no shape to serve fruit of any kind – it was May 3, 1865 and he was on the funeral train that took him back to Springfield for burial. A sad end to the town’s relationship with its founder, but President Gerald Ford brought the healing in October 1976, when he stopped by the town and recreated the famous watermelon juice drop.
The sculpture is in downtown Lincoln, just a few feet away from the Amtrak station.