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Here's a pleasing twist: Closing the Lincoln Museum has exposed thousands more visitors to the items it contained.
After the Lincoln Museum, operated by a foundation that was an arm of Lincoln Financial Group, closed in 2008, its holdings were divided between the Indiana State Museum and the main Allen County Public Library.
Now, 150 years after the 16th president was killed by an assassin, the people entrusted with Fort Wayne's vast Lincoln collection are quickly creating digital images of its holdings and opening them to a much larger audience.
Jane Gastineau, one of two Lincoln librarians who care for the collection in the vault and storage rooms of the main Allen County Public Library, said that 1,300 books and documents and 3,715 photographs are available online.
They're available, and very popular. She said the Lincoln Collection's website has recorded about 2.2 million downloads. A great deal of the collection's holdings are old enough that they are not protected by copyright law, and the images online can be freely shared and reproduced.
“We provide a lot of photographs,” Gastineau said.
The state museum in Indianapolis received sculptures, furniture, clothing and other “three-dimensional” items. The Allen County Public Library is the home of printed and written material: books, photographs, newsletter, magazines, newspapers, letters and other material related to Lincoln and the Civil War.
Even as its online resources attract thousands of people examining Lincoln's life, the physical collection remains an attraction.
“February (the month of Lincoln's birth) is like Christmas around here,” said Gastineau. School tours visit the collection, and Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana Inc. helps support presentations on Lincoln at the library.
That Fort Wayne became one of America's great centers of Lincoln material would undoubtedly have surprised Lincoln himself. He stopped in Fort Wayne only once. The draft Lincoln instituted to field the Union Army during the Civil War was unpopular here. And Lincoln didn't win either the 1860 or 1864 election among Fort Wayne voters, noted Lincoln librarian Andriana Maynard.
But after Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago today, less than a week after the surrender of the bulk of Confederate forces, many Northerners came to revere him as something more like a martyred prophet than merely a respected president.
By the turn of the century, countless businesses were naming themselves after Lincoln, including the Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., founded in 1905 in Fort Wayne, now Lincoln Financial Group. (The other best-known example is the Lincoln Motor Co., founded in 1917, which survives as the Lincoln division of Ford Motor Co.)
The founders of Lincoln National immediately wrote to Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, asking for a photograph they could use in company letterhead, said Lincoln Librarian Jane Gastineau. The company slogan was “the name indicates the character,” she said.
Robert Lincoln obliged and sent the Fort Wayne company a photograph that he said was his favorite image of his father. That photo became the first piece of Lincolniana in the company's collection.
For a generation, there was no formal collection of Lincoln material at the company, but three of its executives were avid collectors. In 1928, they combined their collections in a collection and hired a curator. For decades, the company gathered Lincoln material.
Now the collection maintained the library includes more than 20,000 books and pamphlets, including books owned by Lincoln himself and his family. Photographs are another huge component of the collection; more than 5,000 images related to Lincoln, including many from a Lincoln family album, are here now.
After Lincoln Financial Group decided to close the Lincoln Museum, located in what is now Citizens Square, local philanthropists and community leaders determined to keep the collection raised millions to endow a fund to maintain it. Money from that endowment now pays both Lincoln librarians.
It maintains Fort Wayne's powerful connection with the president who ended slavery and won the Civil War -- a connection that was far more ambivalent during Lincoln's life.
“He is probably the one individual in American history that is revered the most,” said Geoff Paddock, a Fort Wayne city councilman and a member of the board of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection. “The reminder of his unselfish leadership is so poignant at the 150th anniversary of his assassination.”
“Fort Wayne ranks in the top with Springfield, Ill.; Gettysburg, Penn.; and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as a great repository of artifacts that honors the 16th president, and every Fort Wayne resident should be proud of that,” Paddock said.
“Lincoln is a presence here you don't find in a city without a direct connection,” said Maynard. “Fort Wayne is a Lincoln city.”