An Albion girl changed the face of the American presidency

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 12 June 2013 at 12:00 am

Lincoln took Grace Bedell’s advice to grow a beard

Photos by Tom Rivers – The community of Westfield in Chautauqua County erected these statues of Grace Bedell and Abraham Lincoln in 1999, commemorating Lincoln’s meeting with Bedell when a train stopped in the village in early 1861 on his way to Washington to serve as U.S. president. The statues are the centerpieces of a park at corner of Main and Portage streets.

Bedell grew up in Albion, but briefly lived in Westfield. She mailed the letter to Lincoln, recommending he grow whiskers, when she lived in Westfield.

Grace Bedell’s father Norman attended a country fair in the fall of 1860 and brought home a campaign poster featuring Abraham Lincoln and his vice presidential running mate Hannibal Hamlin.

Grace, 11, didn’t see how Lincoln could win, not with that face. He was too homely looking. But Bedell, who lived in a pro-abolitionist home, had an idea that would make Lincoln more appealing to the masses: Grow a beard.

On Oct. 15, 1860, she mailed a letter to Lincoln.

“I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President,” Grace wrote.

A historical marker (badly in need of painting) stands next to 350 West State St., the neighborhood were Bedell lived in Albion. After she married in 1870, she left Albion to live in Kansas.

Lincoln took Bedell’s advice and was elected. He also wrote back to Grace on Oct. 19, 1860.

“I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters – I have three sons – one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age – They, with their mother, constitute my whole family –

“As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?” Lincoln wrote to Grace.

The Bedell family had lived in Albion for 40 years before they moved to Westfield in 1859. They stayed two years before returning to Albion.

Grace has become a beloved American story. She is typically associated with Westfield because that’s where she mailed her letter and where Lincoln met her on Feb. 16, 1861. Lincoln was on a train ride from Springfield, Ill. to the nation’s capitol when the train stopped in Westfield. Lincoln chatted with Grace and showed off his new beard.

In 1999, the Westfield community dedicated two statues at the intersection of Main and Portage streets. The statues recreate the scene when Lincoln met Bedell on the train stop. It has turned what had been a drab piece of property into an attraction, a big visual improvement and source of community pride.

Westfield recreated the scene when Lincoln met Grace Bedell on his inaugural train ride.

Albion notes its Bedell connection with a historical marker next to 350 West State St., her childhood home. (Most of the paint has flaked off the sign.)

Grace is more an Albion girl than a Westfield one. Her father Norman was a partner in a stove-making company next to the canal in Albion.

Norman Bedell was a staunch abolitionist. Historians say the family attended the Albion Methodist Episcopal Church, which split into two churches in 1859 because of the turmoil over slavery. (The Albion Free Methodist Church emerged from this split. It is the first Free Methodist Church in the world.)

Bedell wanted out of the disharmony and moved to Westfield, working in a stove-making business. Railroads were spreading in the mid-1850s and started to compete with the canal for shipping goods. Westfield had a new railroad.

Mr. Bedell worked there for two years and then moved back to Albion. Grace finished school in Albion, married George Billings and then settled in Kansas. Grace lived to be 87. The couple had one son.

The Lincoln statue in Westfield is larger than life.