The famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were surely a matter of importance to the residents of Fullersburg, particularly in the strained pre-Civil War era. These debates were at seven locations throughout Illinois between August and October of 1858. Lincoln and Douglas both sought a Senate seat from this state, and although Douglas prevailed in the election, a bright light was shone on Lincoln as he stated a clear position for the nation against the institution of slavery. While Douglas advocated for "popular sovereignty" in regard to territories permitting or prohibiting slavery, Lincoln maintained that "a house divided against itself cannot stand."
How were the residents of Fullersburg impacted by Lincoln and Douglas? George Ruchty writes in The Fullers of Fullersburg that Lincoln stopped at the village on his way to Ottawa for the first debate. "It is known that he stopped at one of the inns for dinner during his travels west to Ottawa in August of 1858, at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. My grandfather, Amenzo Coffin, heard him speak to a small group of people from the porch of the Grand Pacific Hotel." Surely the topic of slavery would have been included in Lincoln's speech, and the residents of Fullersburg would have supported his position on this subject; Fullersburg citizens actively participated in the Underground Railroad, harboring and assisting fugitive slaves on their way to freedom. Tunnels beneath the Fuller Inn and the Fullersburg Tavern as well as the cellar of Graue Mill were "stations" in this secret transportation system, which carried serious potential legal penalties for anyone involved. (See "For You" section of this website to read The Fullers of Fullersburg.)
The citizens of Fullersburg also would have been intrigued by Lincoln's skills in public speaking and debate. Numerous residents were enthusiastic members of the Brush Hill Debate Club, which was formed by the local settlers in 1857 to enhance their education and understanding of intellectual and ethical topics of the day. (The settlement of Brush Hill became Fullersburg around 1852; as stated by George Ruchty of the village, "it was said the inhabitants were either Fullers or married to the Fullers.") A journal of this club was recovered in 2020 by Fullersburg Historic Foundation, and it indicates that in 1857, the club's members discussed complaints against the white man by both enslaved and indigenous people. It is likely that some Fullerburg residents attended the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ottawa due to their moral convictions as well as their appreciation for oratory skills and debate. (See "Journal" section of this website for further information.)
As predicted by Lincoln, a house divided against itself could not stand, and when the Civil War broke out in 1861, several men from Fullersburg enlisted as Union soldiers. Ruchty writes that Morell Fuller fought in the battles of Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, and Atlanta, as well as traveling with Sherman on his march to the sea; Morell also played the drum and the fife during his military service. He returned to Fullersburg after the war, started a family, and paid tribute to his country every Fourth of July wearing his military uniform and playing his drum. Many of the local Civil War veterans are laid to rest at Historic Fullersburg Cemetery in Hinsdale, including Morell, and they are honored each Memorial Day during a flag-changing ceremony. (See "Events" section of this website.)
The Grand Pacific Hotel subsequently became famous due to its connection to Abraham Lincoln, and as Ruchty notes, "Back in the horse and buggy days, 1885-1905, it was a common occurrence to have a carriage full of passengers pull up to the Grand Pacific Hotel asking to see the room in which Lincoln had slept." If they were told that it was unsure whether or not Lincoln had slept there, "the answer always provoked an argument. Such continued persistence on the part of the public not to accept the honest answer given, the Ruchty family finally decided to set up a room with a bed, commode, dresser, and chair at the top of the stairs and call in the Lincoln room. From that time on the visitors were satisfied and left feeling that their trip to Fullersburg was complete." Ruchty further notes that the bed in that small room was only five and a half feet long, but "no one ever questioned how Mr. Lincoln could sleep in so short a bed." When this hotel was torn down in 1909, "the Lincoln story was transferred to the Castle Inn across the street," ensuring that the arguments regarding Lincoln's stay in Fullersburg would not resume.
While Lincoln probably did not spend the night in Fullersburg in August of 1858, it is logical to assume that he felt kinship with the residents of Fullersburg, who not only shared his empathy toward enslaved people, but actively assisted them. For example, blacksmith John Coe (who married Harriet Fuller, sister of Benjamin) was a "conductor" in the Underground Railroad, and his obituary notice alludes to the dangers he faced. "Mr. Coe was quite prominent in the days of the Old Plank road, and during slavery days experienced some exciting adventures, his home being one of the stations on the famous underground railway." (Courtesy of The Hinsdale Doings, February 17, 1906.) Mr. Coe and the other citizens of historic Fullersburg, while not as famous as Abraham Lincoln, are also heroes who contributed to the democratic foundation of our country.
Sue Devick, M.A.