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Library exhibit in Willmar, Minn., invites discussion on Lincoln, Civil War

Samantha TerBeest, the adult programs librarian at the Willmar Public Library, introduces a group to the traveling Lincoln exhibit. The exhibit runs through Feb. 17. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

The Gettysburg Address is less than 300 words in length. It can be recited in under two minutes. But Abraham Lincoln was wrong when he said in his speech that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."

In fact, it's one of the most famous speeches in history, given to remember the 50,000 American soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of Gettysburg. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and to observe the sesquicentennial, the Willmar Public Library is hosting an Abraham Lincoln and Civil War exhibit now through Feb. 17.

The exhibit, "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War," consists of five large panels that invite discussion on the topics of civil liberties, secession and slavery. The Willmar library is one of five libraries in Minnesota to host the traveling exhibit, according to Samantha TerBeest, adult services librarian at the Willmar Public Library.

Last week, the library held an exhibit opening, where Lincoln impersonator Bryce Stenzel and state Rep. Dean Urdahl spoke about the Civil War and Lincoln's indelible mark on history.

"Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president," said Urdahl, who serves as co-chair of the Civil War Commemoration Task Force established by Gov. Mark Dayton. "He brought this nation through its greatest crisis. Lincoln was determined to save (our Union), even if the Constitution could not always be strictly adhered to."

If Lincoln could see the America of today, he would probably have some mixed feelings, said Urdahl, who has also written three historical fiction novels centered on Lincoln, the Civil War and the Dakota Conflict of 1862.

"I think he would be impressed by our education system and our transportation system," Urdahl said. "He would probably be surprised by the way races interact with each other today. He would be surprised by a lot of the rights that black people rightly achieved."

Many people today have misconceptions about the man Lincoln was, according to Stenzel.

"We almost think of him as a caricature. We remember that he had oversized feet and that he was 6 feet 4 inches tall," Stenzel said. "We remember 'four score and seven years ago.' But many people don't realize what a deep thinker he was. He was also a spiritual man. He didn't belong to any one church, but that doesn't mean he wasn't spiritual."

Stenzel has been portraying Lincoln for 22 years and studying his life for much longer, but he said he still learned something from the library's Lincoln exhibit.

"I was very impressed," Stenzel said. "Every time I turned around, I saw something new. I had to walk around a couple of times to see it all."

Stenzel, who has written seven nonfiction plays about Lincoln and the Civil War, regularly travels around the state to portray Lincoln, because he said educating people -- especially young students -- about history is a way to understand the present.

"History is about the present," Stenzel said. "It's about telling a story. I do my best to portray Lincoln well, because I feel that he speaks to us still. Many issues that he faced are ones we still grapple with today."

"Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War" is open to the public during regular library hours. It was organized by the National Constitution Center and the American Library Association and is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In addition to the exhibit, the Willmar Public Library is also hosting film nights and book discussions about Lincoln and the Civil War. On Feb. 4, the library will also take a group to the G.A.R in Litchfield. To register for the free trip, contact the library at 320-235-3162.

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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