Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.
Abraham Lincoln is not only considered one of America’s greatest presidents, but also one of the most identifiable, thanks in part to his beard. It’s fascinating to consider, then, that the roots of his iconic facial hair can be traced to Chautauqua County and an 11 year-old girl from Westfield.
Grace Bedell was born Nov. 4, 1848. On October 15, 1860, Grace wrote a letter to the republican presidential candidate from Illinois, urging him to grow a beard to improve his appearance.
In her letter, she wrote, “My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture. I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are… I have got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin… All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Lincoln responded to Grace in a letter on Oct.19, 1860, making no promises. However, within a month, he grew a full beard that he wore for most of the remainder of his life. During his inaugural train ride from Chicago to Washington, D.C., he made a point to stop in Westfield where he met with the 11 year old and gave her a kiss on the check. A statue depicting the meeting is located in the center of the village.
Bedell wrote a second letter to Lincoln in 1864, asking for help in gaining employment so she could support her parents. She later married a Union veteran and moved to Kansas, where she died in 1936.
– J. Sample