April Rothenbach has learned plenty about Abraham Lincoln and the Bement-based Bryant family in her first five months as the site interpretive coordinator at the Bryant Cottage State Historic Site.
But even if she spends years helping people learn about the historic nature of the 806-square-foot, mid-1800s frontier style home, she’ll still be able to learn more.
“That first month going through, I first figured out ‘what are the necessities for the tour? What do I need to know to give them a full picture?’ Then I started building up my Lincoln debate knowledge, because that’s an area I hadn’t delved into. I read the transcripts for those and background knowledge on those, then branched out to the Bryant family and their history in town,” said Rothenbach, who helped reopen the site in August after a nearly 18-month closure.
Most Piatt County residents – and even visitors who reach the cottage as a destination point – know its main claim to fame: The place where Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met in 1858 to plan their now-famous series of debates for an Illinois senatorial seat. Douglas won that election, but the impression Lincoln made propelled him to the national presidency.
But it’s the lesser-known history of Francis E. Bryant and his family that currently interests Rothenbach, a Carlinville native who earned her degree in archaeology from the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse.
“When people come in, they usually have some idea that it’s connected to Lincoln, and since we are somewhat out of the way, the people that come here are generally pretty excited and know a lot about Lincoln anyway,” said Rothenbach. “But what’s exciting is when you get to share the other aspects of the home, and the Bryant family, and how all that connects together to create a bigger picture.”
That includes some of the artifacts in the four-room home, some of which are original and others that were brought in later.
“Something I’m looking forward to getting into, because of my background as an archaeologist – we focus on material culture – so getting into some more detailed information about some of the inventory pieces we have here. Some of the physical items and getting histories on those,” she said.
Rothenbach is also looking forward to getting the Bryant Cottage back on the map. That includes keeping popular events such as Heritage Sunday and the Christmas Open House back on the schedule, but also adding new events like Third Saturday children’s reading events, a summer croquet activity and an authors day in November to celebrate Nellie Verne Burt McPherson, a Bement resident who was the first to propose a National Reading Day back in 1928.
All of the events are aimed at one major theme: getting people back to celebrate the area’s storied history.
“We want to reintroduce ourselves and let people know we are back open. We were closed for about a year and a half, so we need to build back up our visitorship,” said Rothenbach, who will soon complete her advanced degree in archeology through Ball State University.
She has always been somewhat of a history enthusiast, the daughter of a Civil War buff. Originally interested in prehistory, an internship on the archaeology team that surveys sites for the Indiana Department of Transportation peaked her interest in more recent research.
“One of the exciting things about dealing with history is you have written records and things you can consult. You can actually research and figure out how people actually used it. In prehistory its a lot more on ‘what are the possibilities?’”
The four-room, 806-square-foot home was constructed by Bryant in 1856-57. It was moved to another location in 1882 and back to the original site in 1925. After it was restored, it was donated to the village of Bement.
The state of Illinois assumed jurisdiction in 1947. It was damaged by fire in 1991 but repaired and restored to historical standards.
Another famous visitor through the years was Marilyn Monroe, who was given a tour of the historic site while in Bement for the town’s centennial in 1955.
The site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays. It can be reached by calling 217-678-8184. It was named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2017.