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Rematch with the past
Expert tells tale of Abe vs. Armstrong

PETERSBURG - Crowds gathered under trees Saturday at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site to hear a noted historian recount the famous wrestling match in 1831 between Abraham Lincoln and Jack Armstrong.

They also watched as Petersburg's Porta High School wrestlers, past and present, grappled on a grassy patch, not far from where the contest occurred.

"There's no question about it - one of the most important sporting events in history took place down this lane," said Mike Chapman, author of "The Sport of Lincoln."

Chapman retired in 2002 from a 35-year journalism career, having written over 600 articles about wrestling. He's also authored 16 books, many about the sport, and is the executive director of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa.

Lincoln moved to the small village to clerk at Denton Offutt's store. Offutt admired Lincoln's strength, Chapman said, and boasted to another storekeeper, William Clary, that Abe was the "strongest man he knew."

In those days, Chapman explained, dice throwing, boxing and wrestling were common forms of entertainment. And wrestling was the best way to determine what a man was made of.

Armstrong was considered the toughest of the young men from nearby Clary's Grove. Talk of a confrontation between him and Lincoln spread, bets were wagered and eventually the two agreed to the challenge.Several versions of the competition have been recorded. Some say Lincoln won, while others say it was a draw. Despite their differences - Abe was taller and leaner, Jack was slightly older and more experienced - they were evenly matched, Chapman said.

He noted that at least one account claims Armstrong stomped on Lincoln's foot and it turned into "good old, backyard barn-style wrestling."

"I think it got pretty rowdy," Chapman said.

Regardless of the outcome, Lincoln proved he could defend himself, and his wrestling prowess is said to have gained him the respect of the rough-and-tumble Clary's Grove boys and residents of New Salem.

"They accepted Lincoln as one of their own; it was a turning point for him. Whatever happened, Jack and Abe became very good friends," Chapman said. He pointed out that years later, Lincoln defended Armstrong's son, Duff, in a murder trial, in which Duff was found innocent.

Jeff Hill, Porta wrestling coach and junior high principal, recalled hearing about the historical match when he was a youngster. A poster depicting the event hangs in the Porta locker room, and Hill encourages his team members to read and write book reports about the topic.

"That's what builds tradition," he said.

Since 1991, Porta has racked up 309 wins, 75 losses and 33 all-state qualifiers.

Nine-year-old Rex Bohall of Brooklyn, N.Y. watched intently as Porta wrestlers Matt Lounsberry, Vince Hudspeth, David Devine, Toby Turek and Bobby Calhoun paired off, demonstrating various wrestling moves and styles, while they tried to throw each other to the ground.

"I didn't know anything about Lincoln as a wrestler," said Rex's father, Steve.

Ryan Williamson, also 9, recently moved to Springfield from Phoenix. Ryan said he'd learned a lot about Lincoln at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, but he didn't know about the bout with Armstrong until he toured the reconstructed frontier settlement Saturday.

"I thought it was very interesting. I liked it a lot," Ryan said of the presentation, which was part of the "What's Cooking" event held this weekend at New Salem.

About 7,000 people travel to Iowa's International Wrestling Institute and Museum annually, which opened in 1998. In the lobby, visitors are greeted by a larger-than-life-size mural of the legendary New Salem match.

Chapman, who will return to New Salem today, believes wrestling teaches courage, strength and respect.

"Lincoln exhibited all three," he said.

Hill has seen those characteristics develop in the students he's coached, some of whom are pursuing military, law enforcement, education and other careers.

"They want their bodies to be in the best condition," Hill said. "But they also have to be able to take defeat; they have to shake their opponent's hand and say, 'Good match.' It's part of being human and growing up."

New Salem is located on Illinois 97, about two miles south of Petersburg and 20 miles north of Springfield.

Ann Gorman can be reached through the metro desk at 788-1519.

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