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Lincoln joins downtown Albion bench project

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 27 June 2014 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – The latest addition of the downtown Albion public art project, where benches are painted to celebrate local history and themes, debuted late this morning. Artist Peter Loran of Kent painted the bench with images of Abraham Lincoln and Grace Bedell, an Albion native who wrote Lincoln a letter, urging him to grow a beard. He took her advice. The bench is on East Bank Street, near the Main Street intersection.

ALBION – A bench near the Main Street and East Bank Street intersection in Albion now celebrates a story from Albion’s heritage, including a connection to Abraham Lincoln and a letter that “changed the face of the presidency.”

Grace Bedell spent most of her childhood in Albion. But when she was 11, she lived in Westfield in Chautauqua County. Abraham Lincoln was running for president at the time.

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.

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 briefly lived in Westfield, and mailed her letter to Lincoln from that community.

This historical marker, which is badly in need of painting, stands next to 350 West State St., the neighborhood were Bedell lived in Albion.

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.

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. After she married in 1870, Bedell left Albion to live in Kansas.

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.

Peter Loran painted the Lincoln bench. The bench was paid for as part of a Main Street grant awarded to Albion for street-scape improvements. The Albion Rotary Club paid Loran for his art work on the bench.

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.