As Illinois prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the end of the Civil War, attendance is down at all five state-supervised sites dedicated to the former president in his hometown.
The (Springfield) State Journal-Register reports that even at the crown jewel — the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is gearing up for its own 10th anniversary this year — the number of visitors could fall below 300,000 for the first time when the final 2014 figures are calculated.
Officials blame a $1.1 million budget cut which forced shorter hours at eight historic sites in the Springfield area, staffed by fewer employees. They say schools cut transportation spending, limiting field trips and suggested a public dust-up over removing control of the library and museum from Illinois Historic Preservation Agency might have contributed.
"We also have had to cut back on new programs, services and new events," Historic Preservation Agency spokesman Chris Wills said. "We're doing a lot of them, but with fewer employees, not as many as we'd like. It's harder to entice people to come back if you're stretched thin by just keeping the doors open."
Figures are only available through November. Compared to the same period a year earlier, visitors at the library and museum were down 12 percent; a few blocks south, 22 percent fewer had stopped in at the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln served in the General Assembly and gave his signature 1858 "House Divided" speech.
There was less of a dip at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site in Petersburg, north of Springfield, where Lincoln began his professional career. There were bigger drops at the Lincoln Tomb and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, both of which were closed for large chunks of the year for renovation.
Doors opened less at three sites not related to Lincoln, as well — the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana Thomas House, the boyhood home of poet Vachel Lindsay and the Oak Ridge Cemetery memorials to veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Justin Blandford, superintendent of state historic sites, said full staffing would require 12 people; there are seven on the job.
"We're not able to do the kind of programming we'd like to do when we have to spend more time on basic things," Blandford said, adding that in 2015, "we hope to be able to make up some ground and address that staffing."
The only month that attendance at the library and museum topped 2013 was in October — the month that Caterpillar Foundation funded visits by schoolchildren in cities that have one of the heavy machinery-maker's facilities. Wills said public schools cut spending on bus transportation, which hurt.
He said it's even possible the squabble over museum oversight played a part. House Speaker Michael Madigan is behind legislation to make the presidential library and museum a state entity separate from the Historic Preservation Agency, prompting a debate that aired some dirty laundry among leaders of the state's historic treasures.
"But we can't really say for sure," Wills said. "It was a big topic of conversation over the past year."