Lincoln Reenactment turns 25
Annual event held in Lincoln for a quarter century
By Jennifer McDaniel
For the Lincoln Sentinel
When Marilyn Helmer thinks back on how her community’s annual Lincoln Re-enactment celebration has grown from a fledgling idea to a nationally-known, respected program, she takes a moment to reflect. The two-day event, which celebrates President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and his contributions to American society, is now in its 25th year.
And if that wasn’t enough to celebrate, this year’s festivities also culminate the end of the Civil War with the signing of the Treaty of Appomattox.
“Where else can one witness Gen. Lee and Gen. Grant signing the terms of surrender?” said Helmer, who founded and has organized the event each year.
This year’s celebration is scheduled for February 13-14. Although the event is officially observing its 25th year, Helmer said she has actually been honoring Lincoln for at least 27. Helmer got the idea one day after visiting her husband, who was principal at Tescott Elementary School. While she waited to see her husband, Helmer noticed a man in the hallway. As he turned around, Helmer said she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“I was speechless,” she said. “There stood Abraham Lincoln. I couldn’t believe someone could resemble him so closely.”
It was at that point she suggested contacting other Lincoln look-a-likes to see if they could help the community celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. And so, for the first two to three years, the actors walked the streets of Lincoln, asking residents questions about the Great Emancipator. If they answered correctly, Helmer said, they received a shiny, copper Lincoln penny in return.
Eventually, the event grew, Helmer said, and for the past 20 years, has been in a format much resembling today’s celebration.
“Twenty-seven years I’ve been doing this,” she said. “Who knew it would grow to this? But you know, there are people who will drive a great distance to recreate history, and that’s our focus.”
About 10 years ago, Helmer said she began noticing familiar faces returning year after year. Many of the presenters have developed lifelong friendships, and return to Lincoln each February to reunite, she said. And with new presenters added each year, the circle of friendship continues to grow.
As she reflects on past reenactments, it’s difficult for Helmer to pick out just a few of her favorite moments. Some, she said, are personal, touching ones, while others were spectacular like “The Wedding of the Century” between Gen. George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Libbie Clift Bacon in 2012. The wedding not only contained original scripting from the 1864 nuptials, but also featured nationally-known Custer re-enactor, Steve Alexander of Monroe, Mich.
Others have included having national recognition in 1994 after a Salina Journal photographer captured a prize-winning moment when Abraham Lincoln look-a-like Stan DeHann, an Iowa dairy farmer, took a bow before the crowd after being named the winner. That photograph paved the way for DeHann to not only appear on Good Morning America, but also at his brother-in-law’s church – the Rev. Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.
This year’s event, Helmer said, features many past presenters, including Littleton, Colo., resident John Voehl, and his wife, Pamela, who portray Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Years ago, Voehl was still developing the role of Lincoln when he first took part in the annual re-enactment. His wife, Pamela, Helmer said, got her start here as well. Today, the two travel the country portraying the famous couple.
“I think they represent something that has come out of our weekend,” she said. “ … Our re-enactment weekend has legs.”
With the culmination of the Civil War and many other milestones, such as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, already passed, where does the annual re-enactment go from here? Helmer said that each year, she always wonders what else can she do. And each year, a new idea emerges.
“It will come if it’s meant to be,” she said.
Festivities begin Friday afternoon at the Finch Theatre, 122 E. Lincoln Ave., with an open house at 2:30 p.m. hosted by Bev Nelson of Lincoln, who will portray Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln. Following a formal welcome and introduction of guests at 3 p.m., a documentary about Kansas and the Civil War, “Road to Valhalla,” will be presented. Following the screening, the audience will have the opportunity to discuss the film’s themes and message. The film begins at 3:20 p.m. followed by the open discussion at 4:55 p.m. Tickets for the Friday evening meal and film will be sold at the Finch Theatre, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Tickets for the meal are $10 for adults, and $5 for children 12 and under. Film passes are $4 for adults.
Following the evening meal, activities will move to the Lincoln County Historical Museum, 216 W. Lincoln Ave. Period music performed by the Salina, Kan., duo of Mattson & Weaver begins at 6:20 p.m., setting the tone for the evening’s events. Beginning at 6:45 p.m., John Voehl, of Littleton, Colo., will present, “Generals Lincoln Chose and Why.” Voehl is no stranger to the annual reenactment, and is nationally known for his portrayal of Lincoln. At 7:20 p.m., local Civil War historian Jack Crispin will present, “General Grant Takes Command.”
Saturday features a full day of events at the Lincoln County Courthouse 216 East Lincoln Ave., beginning with music provided by Mattson & Weaver at 9:30 a.m. Master of Ceremonies Jack Crispin will welcome guests to this year’s celebration as well as give the audience its first glimpse of this year’s group of Lincoln Look-A-Like contestants at 9:50 a.m. The morning’s events continue at 10 with John Voehl, who will present, “Lincoln’s Motive in Freeing the Slaves.” At 10:30 a.m., historian Donna Rae Pearson, of Topeka, will present, “The Day After: The African Response.” At 11:05 a.m., Joan Wilson, a historian for the National Park Service at Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, will give a presentation on the Underground Railroad. Author, TV hostess and historian Deb Goodrich-Bisel, of Topeka, will take the stage at 11:30 a.m. with her presentation, “First Widows: Mary Todd Lincoln and Jacqueline Kennedy.”
At noon, the day’s festivities begin to heat up when Master of Ceremonies Michael Pickering takes center stage to host the Lincoln Look-A-Like contest. Audience members will determine the winner, and awards will be presented by Mary Todd Lincoln, portrayed by Bev Nelson. Following the crowning of this year’s winner, festivities will move one last time to the Lincoln Junior/Senior High School Commons Area, 701 E. North St. After enjoying a meal of buffalo stew, John and Pamela Voehl, who will portray Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, will present, “Before the Ford Theatre: Abraham’s and Mary’s Last Conversation” at 1:20 p.m. Following at 1:55 p.m., will be Lincoln reenactment regular Marla Matkin of Hill City, Kan., presenting, “Hearts United By Love and War.”
At 2:30 p.m., the day’s events build to the anticipated three-act play, “Lee and Grant at Appomattox,” which portrays the signing of the terms of surrender between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Overbrook resident Randy Durbin will portray Grant, while Lane Smith of Overland Park will take the role of Lee. In celebration of the war’s end, the day draws to a close with a 3:45 p.m. performance by the Kansas Brigade Band of Abilene, Kan. The band, comprised of musicians from the Abilene area, has performed for nearly 20 years for Civil War events around the state.
Tickets for the event go on sale, beginning at 9 a.m. on Reenactment Saturday at the courthouse. An adult, all-day ticket, including lunch, is $25, while children 12-and-under pay $12.50. Tickets for only a half-day’s activities are $12.50 for adults and $6.25 for children. For more information on ticket prices, contact Helmer at Village Lines, (785) 524-5133. An updated schedule of events is available at www.villagelines.com.