Abraham Lincoln’s ties to Illinois already are honored on everything from state license plates to commemorative quarters, but a small-town group is working on an even bigger tribute.
A 305-foot monument of Lincoln — as tall as the Statue of Liberty — has been proposed in this namesake city of about 15,000 people.
Supporters think the $40 million statue could ultimately anchor a massive theme park blending historical exhibits with rides, restaurants and other attractions.
“If we get the money, I think you’ll see it go and I think you’ll see it become one of the biggest tourist attractions in America,” said the Rev. S.M. Davis, a Lincoln pastor who first suggested the monument.
The idea has met with skepticism in Lincoln, where some townspeople worry that the statue, which would be visible for about 20 miles, might be in bad taste. Others question whether the rural area could pull off a project so big that organizers predict it could double Lincoln’s population within five years.
Many residents see plan as ‘a joke’
"Most of the people I talk to think it’s a joke,” said Don Loren, a downtown barber for 54 years.
But stranger things have happened in the growing amusement industry, said Art Schutte of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati-based firm working with Lincoln statue supporters.
“Remember Branson?” Schutte said, referring to the small Missouri town that has become a country music mecca. “You just never know.”
Davis first floated the idea about 2 1/2 years ago, and a community group was appointed to solicit the corporate donations needed to bankroll the project. Then the nation’s economy soured and the World Trade Center towers fell, raising concerns about adding new targets for terrorism, said Larry Steffens, chairman of the group.
With the economy showing signs of recovery, supporters recently renewed their sales pitch. Steffens said one company he did not identify is “very interested,” and Schutte thinks several might be willing to invest in exchange for naming rights.
Patterned after painting
In the first phase of the project, the steel and fiberglass statue would be built, patterned after a Lloyd Ostendorf painting that shows Lincoln christening the town with watermelon juice in 1853, Steffens said.
Though organizers hope to match the height of the Statue of Liberty, Steffens said the Lincoln statue may be smaller because of air traffic and the tornadoes that threaten the area every spring.
The initial phase, which would take about two years, also would put replicas of two wooden barrels behind Lincoln — 10-story buildings that could house museums, shops and restaurants, Steffens said.
Later, the project near Interstate 55 could expand to include historical exhibits, rides, shows and other attractions similar to Six Flags or Disney World, Steffens said.
“You don’t do something like this in a year or two years. It may take 20 years, but if that’s what it takes that’s what it takes,” Steffens said.
Tourism officials think the statue would be an economic boon for both Lincoln, which already has a replica of a Lincoln-era courthouse and a Lincoln College museum with $2.2 million of memorabilia, and nearby Springfield, which has the late president’s home and tomb.
Museum curator urges tribute, not a tourist attaction
But Ron Keller, curator of the college museum, thinks the project should be a tribute to Lincoln, not a tourist attraction.
“If the goal is to make money and bring in visitors, I think that’s the wrong goal,” Keller said.
As head of the Lincoln area’s tourism bureau, Thressia Usherwood says she’s all for drawing more people to town. But she said she still has mixed feelings about the statue.
“I wouldn’t want anything that would make Abraham Lincoln look ridiculous,” she said. “Done correctly, done tastefully, it could bring a lot of people in.”
With the local economy still struggling, several residents said Lincoln should try to grab the extra income.
“If it brought jobs, it would be a good thing for everybody,” said Mike Gallagher.