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Lincoln's 'Janesville speech' memorialized

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
October 8, 2011
— When Abraham Lincoln spoke in front of the former Young America Hall in downtown Janesville, he was just starting to feel his oats as a national politician and was campaigning for president.

On Oct. 1, 1859, standing at what is now the southwest corner of the Johnson Bank parking lot at 1 S. Main St., Lincoln spoke to a crowd of 1,000 for an hour. His talking points: slavery, free labor and popular sovereignty.


Young America Hall was demolished more than 40 years ago, but the place of Lincoln’s 1859 speech is now marked with a monument. It was unveiled Friday in a ceremony presented by local Lincoln historian Pete Skelly.


The stone monument has a plaque showing a photo of Lincoln taken around the time of his Janesville speech along with a bronze image of Young America Hall and an inscription. It was donated by the Skelly family in honor of Skelly’s father, Vic Skelly, a former Janesville firefighter.


Lincoln visited Janesville twice, once in 1832 and again during his speech in 1859, when he stayed for two days at what is now known as the Lincoln-Tallman House.


The speech came while Lincoln was stuck waiting for a train. Skelly said it’s likely Lincoln would have remembered the event only as a footnote.


“I’m sure he would have went, ‘Huh?’” Skelly said.


Yet Skelly, who is a former member of the State of Wisconsin Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, pointed out that Lincoln’s appearances at the Lincoln-Tallman House and at a Janesville church all have been memorialized.


He said it’s only right that the downtown site of Lincoln’s speech should be honored, too.


The monument’s inscription has part of an Oct. 4, 1859, story that appeared in the Janesville Daily Gazette describing the future president as follows: “His physiognomy homely, and his phrenological developments being peculiar, he attracted much attention.”


But the same news story also tells how Lincoln’s high, reedy voice cut through the crowd, delivering a message that brimmed with intelligence, sharp satire and biting wit.


“He was tough to take at first, but once he got going, he could wrap a crowd around his finger,” Skelly said. “After five or 10 minutes, boom! He had them.”


Skelly said he hopes the new monument draws more attention to the city’s history. He said Janesville has other sites he believes should be marked, including a few Civil War camps and a World War II prisoner of war camp that was located on Crosby Avenue.


“There’s little historical things like that that people don’t know that existed,” Skelly said. “They deserve some interest and commemoration before we lose sight and lose touch with them.”



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