Abraham Lincoln’s Visit to the Tallman House in Janesville, Wisconsin
The Future President Was a Guest October 1st-3rd, 1859
In the late summer and fall of 1859, Abraham Lincoln was in demand as a speaker in what are today the U.S. midwestern states. The 50 year old Springfield, Illinois lawyer had garnered national attention in 1858 in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas during their U.S. Senate race. Although he lost to Douglas (at that time, Senators were elected by state legislators) his star was on the rise politically, with some newspapers and supporters entertaining the idea of Lincoln as a presidential candidate.
On September 30th of 1859, Lincoln gave a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee. He then left for Beloit, Wisconsin, for another scheduled speech on October 1st. While in Beloit, Lincoln was approached by William Tallman, a lawyer and prominent citizen of Janesville, a town about a dozen miles north of Beloit. Tallman convinced Lincoln to go with him to Janesville and speak there. He also invited Lincoln to stay at his house while in Janesville, and the future president accepted the offer, riding to Janesville in Tallman’s carriage.
William M. Tallman was originally from Rome, New York, where he was active in the abolitionist movement, including using his home as part of the Underground Railroad to shelter escaped slaves on their way to Canada. In the 1840s, Tallman bought about 4500 acres of land in the southern part of the Wisconsin Territory and made big money reselling the land to incoming settlers. In 1850, the Tallmans moved to Janesville, and construction on what would become known as the Tallman House began in 1855 with completion in 1857. It was one of the finest homes in the area. (Although Tallman remained an abolitionist, it is uncertain if he used his Wisconsin home as an Underground Railroad stop, as he had done in New York).
Located on a three acre bluff overlooking the Rock River, Tallman spared no expense in the house’s construction, using the best quality materials available. The brick Italianate Style home was built with running water, central heating, and was plumbed with piping for gas lighting, even though gas was not yet available in Janesville at the time of construction. There were quarters for a pair of live in servants; and the Tallmans employed other help in running the home.
Lincoln presented his Janesville speech on the evening of October 1st before settling in for the night at the Tallman home. Lincoln stayed in the second floor guest room down the Hall from William and his wife Emmeline. It was customary to place one’s boots outside the bedroom at night, with servants cleaning and returning them early in the morning. But the next day, the boots were gone, and Lincoln was too embarrassed to go to breakfast in his stocking feet. Eventually, the Tallmans brought him down to breakfast and gave him his boots. They wore slippers around the house and got their boots and shoes when they needed them to go outside. This episode did cause Lincoln to miss his train to Chicago, so he attended Sunday services at the First Congregational Church with his hosts that day. On Monday, October 3rd, Lincoln walked to the train station, located a few blocks away, and departed for Chicago.
The Tallman family lived in the home until 1915. From then until 1950, the house was vacant. In 1950, William and Emeline’s great grandson donated the home to the City of Janesville for use as a museum. About 75% of the furnishings currently in the house belonged to the Tallmans, while the remainder are authentic period antiques. The actual bed that Lincoln slept in is present in the second floor guest room where he stayed. The bed itself is six feet long, while Lincoln was six feet four inches. At that time, people would often sleep in an inclined position; if Lincoln did that he probably still had little room to spare.
Today the Rock County Historical Society runs tours of the Tallman House, which is also known as the Lincoln-Tallman House and is located at 426 North Jackson Street in Janesville. Times and types of tours vary throughout the year; an admission fee is charged. In December, the home is decorated throughout with Christmas Trees from various local businesses and organizations.
For more information see the Rock County Historical Society Website
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