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'Lincoln Letter' returns to Lebanon County

Written by Merriell Moyer/Lebanon Daily News | Feb 22, 2017 10:53 AM
lincoln_letter.jpg

A letter from Abraham Lincoln to Lebanon industrialist George Dawson Coleman has found its way home to the Lebanon Historical Society after being in the hands of a private collector since 1961. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- A piece of Lebanon County history has officially returned home this week.

The so-called "Lincoln Letter" - a letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Lebanon industrialist George Dawson Coleman - was discovered by contractor Harold Moody in a secret, hidden safe in Coleman's mansion in 1961, and eventually made its way to Rick Abel.

"Officially, (the letter) was donated by Rick Abel's company, Abel & Son Roofing and Siding," Adam Bentz, archivist and librarian for the Lebanon County Historical Society, said. "They are based in Elizabethtown."

Coleman, the grandson of Robert W. Coleman, the founder of the Coleman dynasty in the Lebanon County and northern Lancaster County areas, is an important figure in Lebanon County's history, according to Bentz.

"George Dawson Coleman was a very important employer, philanthropist and financier," Bentz said. "For all those reasons, he was very significant to us."

Coleman Memorial Park is where the Coleman mansions were located, but several of them were torn down in the 1930s because the city didn't have the funds to properly maintain them, Bentz said.

In 1961, Harold Moody, the owner of a contracting company, was hired to tear down the George Dawson Coleman mansion.

"They hired Moody's company to do the demolition, and as part of his contract, he was allowed to sell anything that he found that was valuable," Bentz said. "A number of his workers were investigating, and they opened up this panel in the library and found a steel safe in the wall."

Moody couldn't find anyone who had a key to the safe, and no one he talked to knew how to get into it, but his men were able to cut the steel vault open. They discovered the letter inside.

"This was by far the most significant item inside," Bentz said.

There was a letter of appointment from the governor of Pennsylvania inside, according to a 1961 Lebanon Daily News article, Bentz said, but he said he couldn't recall all the details of the rest of the safe's contents.

The "Lincoln Letter" was the most important and valuable item found inside, however.

"This (letter) basically was an assignment issued to George Dawson Coleman appointing him to be a commissioner overseeing American exhibitors who went to the 1862 Industry of All Nations Exhibition in London, which was an industrial exhibition," Bentz said.

This appointment may have been an acknowledgement of Coleman's contributions to the Union during the Civil War.

Coleman took over the iron ore mining operation in Cornwall, and he also helped establish the North Lebanon furnaces that were later taken over by Bethlehem Steel. He was also a big supporter of the Union cause during the Civil War, according to Bentz.

"He donated a lot of the funds used to start the 93rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment - the local unit started in Lebanon County," Bentz said. "For example, he bought a number of battle flags for that unit, and we have a few of those here that we are preserving."

This support of the Union during the war may have something to do with the letter he received from Abraham Lincoln, Bentz said.

"My assumption is that he was in very good stead with the Lincoln administration because of his support of the Union war effort, and because of the fact that he was a big industrialist during the time when industry was going to be the big factor in winning the Civil War," Bentz said. "I think this demonstrates an acknowledgement of his service to the country by being offered this commission."

The "Lincoln Letter" was an important acknowledgement of Coleman's service to the country, and it is a very important artifact for the historical society to have.

"It is very significant for us because one of our main focuses is family history, and second to that is history of local businesses and industries," Bentz said. "With the Coleman family, you have both of those, and the fact that this establishes his ties to the Lincoln administration during the Civil War is very exciting to us because it shows the role he was playing as well, I think, it reflects on the role Lebanon played during that time period."

The historical society already has a large collection of Coleman memorabilia and documents related to both the family and the businesses, according to Bentz.

Most of those materials are currently located at the state archives, but the Lebanon County Historical Society has been working to bring them back to the county with an estimated time of arrival sometime in April.

But acquiring the "Lincoln Letter" was a long time in coming.

"For a long time, I think it is safe to say that no one here knew who owned it because it had passed through a variety of collectors' hands over the years," Bentz said. "We knew that it existed, and we hoped it would one day come to us."

After Abel acquired the letter, he contacted the historical society in late spring 2016 and asked if he could put the letter on display there.

"We said we didn't feel comfortable doing that because we didn't own it. It's one of those things where we wouldn't want to be responsible for someone else's belongings, especially in the case of something valuable like this," Bentz said. "He contacted us again in late fall, and he said that he'd been thinking a lot about it and wanted to make a donation because he felt we'd take good care of it, and that it ultimately belonged to Lebanon."

The letter will be on display at the Historical Society, and it can also be seen at the Gretna Theater after Wednesday's showing of "Keeping Mr. Lincoln" at 6 p.m. Call 717-964-3322 for more information.

The historical society also has a book on the Coleman family, "The Colemans: Lebanon's 'Royal Family," that details the finding of the "Lincoln Letter" as well as the Coleman family history. Call the historical society at 717-272-1473 for details, or visit them at their location at 924 Cumberland St., Lebanon, to purchase the book.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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