An Abe Like No Other

Updated: Oct 4, 2021


Abraham Lincoln will be smiling “in gleeful expectation” when he arrives at the Hillsboro Plaza on Courthouse Square next year. The skilled hand of sculptor John McClarey works on a clay model of the newly commissioned work at his studio near Decatur. Photo by: Nancy Slepicka

Sculptor Uses Plaza Setting to Convey Lincoln’s Love of Entertainment


By Nancy Bliss Slepicka

Monday November 17th, 2008


When a life-size statue of Abraham Lincoln is unveiled next August on the Hillsboro Plaza, it will be a unique presentation of America’s greatest president.


John McClarey, award-winning sculptor and historian, says the Hillsboro statue will showcase Lincoln’s wide interest in entertainment and theater, an aspect of Lincoln’s character not seen in other public works.


The nearly 7-foot tall bronze statue will depict Lincoln in his mid-30’s, wearing a top hat and coat. “He has just arrived in town, having put down his travel bag and umbrella, and he’s leaning back slightly to get the kinks out of his back from the long buggy ride from Springfield,” McClarey describes.


Standing at ground level on the north side of the plaza, Lincoln will be looking towards the plaza stage and at a posted advertisement of the 1858 Hillsboro circus, or some other historical or current event. “His smile suggests a gleeful expectation of the event,” the sculptor says. McClarey recently completed a maquette, a small clay model, which he brought to the plaza last week. The design was enthusiastically approved by a local advisory committee organized by Old Settlers Association president Kathy Dagon.


It was Dagon who first proposed commissioning McClarey to create the statue as a way to commemorate both the 125th celebration of Old Settlers Days and the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. She’s scheduled the statue’s dedication for Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009, prior to the opening of Old Settlers Days.


Hillsboro’s Lincoln is now among other works-in-progress at McClarey’s studio, a converted barn on his family’s farm near Decatur. A bust of a thoughtful, deliberative Lincoln, titled Walking in the Shadow of Lincoln, is destined for the state headquarters of the Illinois State Bar Association. A life-size Anthony Thornton conversing with Lincoln will be placed at the convention center in Shelbyville.


Smaller bronzes and a photo display show many of McClarey’s completed projects as well as the breadth of his work.


His outdoor Lincoln statuary includes Young Lincoln on a Log Bench (Vandalia), Vision for a Greater Illinois (Decatur), Lincoln Draws the Line (Peoria), Deputy Surveyor of Sangamon County (New Salem State Park), A House Divided (Charleston), Last Stop (Taylorville) and A Greater Task, in Union Square next to the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield.


He has also created Lincoln sculptures for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.


In 2005 McClarey was the first “visual historian” to receive the Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement. Reproductions of his Freedom River sculpture are now awarded annually to winners of this award at the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg, PA. McClarey traveled to Gettysburg this past weekend to participate in the awards ceremony.


McClarey says he carved his first statue of Lincoln from a bar of Ivory soap when he was just eight years old, and his love of art continued throughout his childhood. Although he majored in sociology, not art, at Millikin University, his career as a sculptor and Lincoln historian took form while he was completing a master’s degree in history from Illinois State University. He began selling small-scale sculptures while teaching high school history in Cerro Gordo and later while working for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs in Springfield.


His breakthrough as a professional sculptor came in 1998 when he was commissioned to create a bust of Lincoln for the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature. Traveling to Moscow for the dedication of that piece was a memorable occasion, McClarey says.


Often described as a sculptor “who specializes in the form and thought of Abraham Lincoln,” McClarey says he starts each piece by thinking of a certain aspect of Lincoln’s character that he wants to portray. He then gives form to that concept in a clay “sketch.”

“I love to write as well,” he says, and he usually creates the written story boards displayed with his sculptures.


McClarey believes that the plaza sculpture “will add a new dimension to public art about Lincoln and provide Hillsboro with unlimited possibilities to enliven that legacy. The idea lends itself to participation by schools, churches and civic groups to promote a positive image of Lincoln and the Hillsboro community. Scholars, Lincoln buffs, the general public and foreign visitors will stop over in Hillsboro, as did Lincoln.”


Lincoln Slept Here


Lincoln’s connection to Hillsboro is well documented. The following are excerpts from the book, Hillsboro, A History, by Dorothy Bliss.


“Lincoln visited Hillsboro numerous times from his early legislative years until he was elected President in 1860. At times, Mr. Lincoln visited ‘Uncle Joe’ and ‘Aunt Jane’ Eccles, who lived in a two-story house on the southeast corner of Berry and Water streets. Mr. Eccles, a Hillsboro merchant and political leader, had been a childhood friend of Mr. Lincoln when both lived in Kentucky.”


“According to the Hillsboro Guide, compiled in 1940 by Harold Blizzard for the Works Project Administration, Mr. Lincoln spoke in Hillsboro at the two-story frame courthouse as early as 1844 while he was attending a political convention as a delegate from Sangamon County.”


“In 1858, when Lincoln was running against Judge Stephen A. Douglas for the United States Senate, both of the candidates spoke at the old fairgrounds, now the Beckemeyer School campus. They didn’t hold one of their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates at Hillsboro, but spoke on the issues of the day a month apart in early August and early September.”


Lincoln appeared at the Hillsboro fairgrounds on Sept. 9, 1858 and delivered his speech “inside the canvas” of the Spaulding and Rodgers Circus.


Mrs. Bliss’ history relays this account of Lincoln’s speech from the Illinois State Journal newspaper: “It continued to rain a perfect torrent during the whole time of the speaking. The seats and pits were packed full of men who hoisted their umbrellas and stood until the last word was heard. At the close, cheer after cheer was given and a thousand hats were thrown in the air in token of the principles and soul of our own Abe Lincoln.”

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