Growing up in Abraham Lincoln’s Larue County home town of Hodgenville, Larry Elliott already was predisposed to admire the 16th president.
But he admits he didn’t know more than the basic facts about Lincoln until he entered a lookalike contest about 10 years ago and was embarrassed to find out he’d committed some glaring historical errors.
The commercial insurance executive started some serious reading then, invested in a more authentic period costume, and embarked on a second career portraying the only Kentucky-born president at festivals and to school groups.
He also learned, through a family source who dug through the Elliott genealogy, that his great, great, great, great grandmother, whose name was Mary LaRue Enlow, was the midwife who delivered the infant Lincoln in his log-cabin birthplace.
So when Elliott stalked to the front of the Fairview Middle School cafeteria Thursday, the seventh- and eighth-grade history students saw the personification of Lincoln in the familiar knee-length black frock coat and tall black hat.
Elliott, whose Lincolnesque beard, by the way, is the real thing, also has all his facts straight these days. “I started out with some suggested reading and pretty soon I found I couldn’t put the books down. I found that this man was a true genius. He literally saved the country,” he said.
Sometimes Elliott goes to schools where the teachers ask him to play up the homespun humor for which Lincoln was noted and to spin some yarns about his boyhood.
What he prefers, and the approach he took at Fairview, is to connect the threads of Lincoln’s life and the development of antebellum American national politics to drive home his pivotal role in preserving the United States and making it the world’s preeminent power.
“My mission,” he told the students, “is not to tell you funny stories and recite the Gettysburg Address, but to give you the big picture of our country.”
He did it by tracing the history of slavery in America from colonial times to the era of political maneuvering that divided the Union into slave and free states, and ultimately threatened to fracture it forever.
In so doing he managed to drop in historical tidbits about the invention of the cotton gin and the telegraph, the cost of labor and commodities in the early 1800s, the Louisiana Purchase, and the thinking of the country’s founders on the institution of slavery.
He also drew a verbal picture of slave ships and a deep-south slave auction, a sight he said cemented Lincoln’s anti-slavery views.
The big picture, Elliott said after his presentation, is that Americans wrestled for decades with the slavery issue, that the founders understood it was a problem, and that, if not for Lincoln, it could have permanently destroyed the nation.
The reenactment “is an excellent opportunity to step back into history and make it come alive,” said eighth-grade history teacher Keith Isaacs.
“Technology can’t replace a true, live reenactment,” Isaacs said. “This is as close to real life as we’re going to get.”
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.