PEEKSKILL, N.Y. – Hundreds of people gathered at the Peekskill Metro North train station Saturday morning to welcome the return of President Abraham Lincoln to the city.
Of course it wasn't really Lincoln, but local impersonator Mike Griest, who played the part of the 16th president of the United States. Griest and members of the Peekskill's Lincoln Society, the oldest such group in the nation, recreate Lincoln's visit to the city on Feb. 19, 1861 every year with a parade from the station to the old train station where he gave a brief speech before departing:
"In regard to the difficulties that lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstration I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail. But without your sustaining hands I am sure that neither I nor any other man can hope to surmount these difficulties. I trust in the course I shall pursue I shall be sustained not only by the party that elected me, but by the patriotic people of the whole country."
It may seem to some like a lot of commotion to celebrate such a brief event, but Peekskill Historian John Curran said the president still resonates with Americans in a way few others can for the way he brought the country back together and helped end slavery.
"It's because he was such a distinctive individual," Curran said at Saturday's event. "It's rare, not just today but even back then, to see somebody who's not influenced by party politics, who's not influenced by what people tell him to do. He consults his own conscience and he does what he thinks is best for the country and the people overall."
Peekskill's Lincoln Society was founded in 1903 and has carried on annual Lincoln events ever since. Former society president Warren Dyckman joined the group 41 years ago as his father and grandfather had before him.
"His greatness as a statesman and the legacy of what he was able to do in one of the worst times in our history, that's what resonates very soundly with our group and we're dedicated to remembering him and passing his philosophy on to the next generation," Dyckman said. "It's something we can't lose."
District 1 County Legislator and former Peekskill Mayor John Testa has been leading efforts to convert the old depot building where Lincoln spoke to an educational center known as The Lincoln Depot. Testa appeared with Griest on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" program last weekend to discuss the president's birthday.
The city acquired the building while Testa was mayor and his Lincoln Depot Foundation hopes to have the building open to the public by next year's event.
"There will be room to have different activities in addition to education components," said Testa of his plans during an exclusive tour given to the press. "This will be a 21st century digital multimedia museum, so we’ll be able to have presentations and audio visual displays as well."
The foundation is also working with the City of Peekskill to create a visitor center in front of the depot that would include information kiosks, a cafe, a gift shop and catering hall which would be managed by the depot and serve as a revenue generator. Plans for the building are still being worked out between the foundation and the city, Testa said.
Peekskill Mayor Mary Foster said the city's Lincoln tributes were an example of how the city is growing tourism and a way that small cities in Westchester can shape their future while remembering their past.
"If you want others to come and celebrate your history with you, you have to celebrate it yourself every year," Foster said. "What the Lincoln Society has done has kept it in forefront of everybody's mind as the population changes over the decades and as we grow. It also helps our new residents understand the historical aspects of the city and what's important about our roots."
To view over 180 photos from Saturday's event go to The Daily Peekskill’s Flickr page.