Recently, New Prairie was sad to have to cut down a distinctive Austrian pine in the front yard of our Urbana straw bale offices (it died a year or so ago). Town lore has it that Abraham Lincoln had this tree planted to replace one he damaged with a carriage while visiting his friend Thomson R. Webber, one of the founding fathers of Urbana.
But is it TRUE? Or just one more “Lincoln was here” story? We decided to do a little digging to see if we could find out.
In 2003, New Prairie bought what was left of the old Webber estate, a double lot with the oldest standing residence in Urbana. Patriarch William T. Webber purchased the land, but stayed in Kentucky and died in 1838. His son Thomson moved to Urbana in 1833. In that same year, acting for his father, Thomson donated some land (along with Isaac and Matthew Busey) in order to persuade county officials to make Urbana the county seat (some say Isaac’s hospitality and whiskey were involved in the decision, too).
Although Thomson Webber was a staunch Democrat, he became a close friend to Abraham Lincoln, who spent much of his time in Urbana as a circuit lawyer. Lincoln: Prelude to the Presidency, a television documentary, notes on its website: “He [Webber] was a close personal friend of [Judge] David Davis and Lincoln. There are several notes by President Lincoln endorsing Webber for paymaster of volunteers during the Civil War. On August 28, 1862 Lincoln sent a note to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “I personally know Thomson R. Webber of Illinois to be an honest and capable man having for a long time been Clerk of the courts in which I practiced.”
When New Prairie bought the Webber house, we were told it was built in 1853; prior to that, the Webbers resided in a log cabin. We’ve since also heard 1869 as a build date. A visit to the County Recorder resulted in a dead end, so we still aren’t sure on this important point.
It was also rumored that a signed letter from Lincoln — thanking the Webbers for their hospitality — went with the property, but it was no longer with the house when New Prairie acquired what was left of the Webber estate, and we have no other information about what the letter contained.
We met with local history buff and Urbana City Council Alderman Dennis Roberts and he had done the following research:
“This tree was said to have been given to the Webber family by Abraham Lincoln when riding on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. The story is told that Lincoln stopped at the Webber farm situated on the main road to Danville just east of downtown Urbana, to conduct a matter of business. On leaving, his carriage clipped a young tree growing in the yard, breaking it. The next spring a small pine seedling arrived from Lincoln as a replacement for the damaged tree. A note accompanying this delivery is said to have been a cherished document and was displayed in the front hall of the house for many years. The letter seems to have been lost at the sale of the home in 1975 to a Mr. Grover.
In researching this story, I interviewed the people who bought the house at 700 East Elm Street, behind the Webber family home, which had been used as an outbuilding, home, and workshop by a descendant of the George Webber family. This family had met the elderly Webber matron and had heard the story of this letter at the purchase of their own home. I also contacted Carl Webber, city lawyer, a member of the extended Webber clan. He asked members of his family, and his mother, about this letter during a family reunion in 2008. The family is not directly descended from the occupants of the Webber home at 607 East Main Street, and could not add any light to this tale.”
Before the Austrian pine was cut down, arborist Michael Poor said it was too small to have been planted that long ago, and Rick Collins, owner and timberframer at Trillium Dell Timberworks, noted that Austrian pines weren’t promoted by the government here until the 1920s, although immigrants were known to plant them before that as reminders of the old countries they left behind. Because of the tree’s presumed age, we thought at that point that the Lincoln story was a no-go.
So everyone was surprised when the tree came down and the rings were counted: it was 170 years old, meaning the tree would have been planted (as a seed; it may have been a seedling when it was actually planted here) in 1841, the year of Lincoln’s first recorded visit to Urbana. The roots had been girdled when it was 45 years old, causing it to be smaller than it should have been. We’ll probably never know if Abraham Lincoln actually gave the tree to the Webbers, but it is certain that it was an unusual planting for its time.
If you’re a local history buff and can shed any more light on this mystery (or want to correct any of our statements), let us know! We’d love to hear from you.
Much thanks to our sources:
Urbana City Council Alderman Dennis Roberts
WILL TV: Prelude to the Presidency
Preservation and Conservation Association
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Below are pictures from the removal and milling of the tree in the fall of 2011. Click or double tap the pictures to see them at their largest. Below the pictures is a video from the milling.