No matter where Leigh
Henson resides, his boyhood home of Lincoln is only a mouse click away.
Last July the
61-year-old former Pekin Community High School English teacher, who's now a
professor of technical writing at Southwest Missouri State University,
launched his Web site (www.geocities.com/findinglincolnillinois/), which
tells the story of President Abraham Lincoln and the first town named in his
In Lincoln, the
country's 16th president had practiced law, substituted as a judge, owned
property and engaged in politics.
introduction, he writes that he created this Web site as a public service to
educated viewers about the rich heritage and promising future of Lincoln--a
community of 15,400 located 60 miles south of Peoria.
He hopes the Lincoln Web
site will promote civic pride among the town's residents and encourage
nonresidents to visit his boyhood hometown.
Henson is following in
the footsteps of former Lincoln resident and literary figure William
Maxwell, who often focused on the small Midwestern community in his novels
and short stories. But rather than deliver his message in print, Henson
chose the Internet.
"I teach a graduate
course in Web site design and development," Henson said in a telephone
interview. "So this was good practice for me. Developing a Web site
publication has distinctive advantages over traditional book publication.
With a Web site, you can interact with the reader. A Web site also allows
you to add and revise the content a lot easier.
"My Lincoln Web site
home page [now the Introduction] carries announcements of new additions. For
example, in the chapter "The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln and the
Founding of Lincoln, Illinois," I recently added a 4,000-word section about
two lawyers, Samuel Parks and Lionel Lacey, with whom Abraham Lincoln
collaborated while practicing law at the Logan County Courthouse from 1853
"Parks became a
distinguished judge and was a key supporter of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860
Republican Convention that nominated Lincoln as its presidential candidate.
I published rare photos of these attorneys in the Lincoln Web site."
Henson's Web site is the
equivalent of more than 800 printed pages with about 1,000 images . Some
7,000 viewers have visited the site. It also has attracted the notice of the
Illinois State Historical Society, which recently named the site "best Web
site of the year."
"The Illinois State
Historical Society has two levels of awards," Henson said. "The top level is
Superior Achievement, which is the one my Web site won. Naturally, I'm very
pleased with the award. It means recognition for several years of research
on this project. And by winning the award, I got some publicity, which will
mean more people will know about the Web site."
Included in the Web
site's content are Henson's memoirs of growing up in Lincoln as well as
recollections of present and former Lincolnites.
"Where I lived was
within walking distance of the Postville Courthouse, where Lincoln practiced
law riding the 8th Judicial Circuit," Henson said. "I also lived very close
to Postville Park, where Lincoln played an early form of baseball. I
remember many family picnics in that park. I grew up with both sets of my
grandparents within walking distance of my home."
In creating the Web
site, Henson had the help of many native Lincolnites, including attorney
Fred Blanford and Illinois Appellate Court Justice James Knecht of
"In addition to
recollections about growing up in Lincoln from Justice Knecht, I also
included a short story by him about playing pool at Hickey's Billiards in
downtown Lincoln on Chicago Street. Knecht's story tells how this pool hall
was a real-world classroom that taught him a great deal about human nature.
The story is as good as any Hemingway short story."
In addition to writer
William Maxwell, poet Langston Hughes also called Lincoln home for a time.
"Hughes spent his
eighth-grade year in Lincoln," Henson said. "In 1953, he wrote his
eighth-grade teacher, Miss Ethel F. Welch, that he had never forgotten
Lincoln. He told her that his writing career began in eighth grade when he
was elected class poet."
Among many published
sources used to develop the site are quotations from Maxwell, who used
people and places from Lincoln in many of his short stories.
The Web site goes into
great detail on the founding of Lincoln on August 1853. The town was located
about a mile east of a community called Postville in the vicinity of the
Chicago and Alton Railroad tracks. Postville would later be absorbed by the
town of Lincoln.
According to the Web
site, the town's developers proudly asked their distinguished attorney,
Abraham Lincoln (also the railroad's attorney), if he would agree to have
the town named after him.
agreed. But in Judge Lawrence Stringer's account in a history about Logan
County, Lincoln cautioned the developers, "You'd better not do that, for a I
never knew anything named Lincoln that amounted to much."
The town, which
eventually became the county seat of Logan County, was named for Abraham
Lincoln long before he became a nationally known figure. Lincoln christened
the town with juice from a watermelon.
Henson's site also
delves into the social and economic history of that community. There are
extensive sections on local businesses and the influence of the railroad.
There also is a section on Route 66, the historic highway that ran through
Lincoln. The town is rich in remnants of what Henson calls "the world's most
"Both sets of my
grandparents lived on Route 66," he said. "One set of grandparents owned a
grocery store and a gas station right on Business 66. That highway was a
good part of my youth."
Henson also writes of
such Prohibition-era figures as bootlegger Coonhound Johnny and of famous
roadhouses like the Maple Club.
A 1960 graduate of
Lincoln Community High School, Henson earned his bachelor's (1964), master's
(1969), and doctoral (1982) degrees in English from Illinois State
University. He taught English at Pekin Community High School for 30 year
before going to Southwest Missouri State University in 1994.
Henson has two grown
children, Kendra Henson, 31, and Brandon Henson, 27. Five years ago, he
married Pat Hartman, who years earlier was a student in one of Henson's
English classes at Pekin Community High School.
Henson began his Web
site as a way to learn more about his hometown and to show others what it's
like growing up in a small town. He spent several years collecting photos,
maps, and vintage postcards and doing research for the project.
"It took two or three
years and a lot of trial and error with computer technology to develop the
Web site, he said.
"A lot of people see Web
sites as superficial. That doesn't have to be. I believe my Web site is
significant in its content and purpose. I'm trying to educate readers about
Lincoln as well as promote civic pride and increase heritage tourism.
"I feel as technology
advances, we will see more Web sites with substantial content used in