If it weren’t for a young girl in New York, Abraham Lincoln may have never grown his iconic beard. What you may not know is that the girl, Grace Bedell, moved to Kansas when she grew up.
Today, Westerly resident Betty Curtis is the proud owner of an antique tea cart that once belonged to Grace. They both lived in the small town of Delphos, Kan., north of Salina. The cart was a gift from Grace’s son to Betty’s father.
Just how did Grace get Honest Abe to grow his beard? In October 1860, the precocious 11-year-old in Westfield, N.Y. liked Mr. Lincoln, and her father was voting for him. But she thought he needed an advantage:
“I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will 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.”
“She was kind of a quixotic little girl,” Betty said.
Clearly charmed by her letter, Lincoln wrote back within the week. A month later, he was elected, and in February he traveled by train from Illinois to Washington, D.C. The journey took Lincoln through Westfield. At a stop there, he called into the crowd for Grace. The girl made her way forward to find the president with a full beard. Lincoln kissed her and spoke with her for several minutes. According to the New York World of Feb. 19, 1861: “The young girl’s peachy cheek must have been tickled with a stiff whisker, for the growth of which she was herself responsible.”
About eight years later, Grace met George Billings. They married, and George set out to homestead on the frontier. Eventually Grace joined him at Abilene, and they traveled overland to Delphos. The Billingses founded one of the town’s two banks. They had three sons – one of whom, Harlow, took over the bank. Grace died in 1936; four years later, young Betty moved to town when her father, a pastor, was appointed to a church there.
At the time, Harlow was still in possession of the letter from Abraham Lincoln to his mother. “I was in the bank one day with my dad when I was 12, and he said, ‘Would you like to see that?'” Betty said. She agreed but admits she didn’t fully grasp the significance of the historical artifact in her hands. “I remember holding it. It had creases in it. But it was just a letter that my friend’s mother had gotten; it was old,” she laughed.
Betty recalls the night Harlow and his wife invited her parents over for dinner – because she and her sister weren’t invited. Her father later came home with Grace’s tea cart. “My dad was a fixer upper. If he wasn’t fixing up people’s lives, he was fixing up people’s stuff,” she said. Later she realized Harlow was “downsizing” as he grew older.
Coincidentally, Betty later married a man with such a striking resemblance to Lincoln that he was regularly called on to portray the president in re-enactments and photos. Charles Curtis was 6 foot 8 inches tall and had a deep, booming voice – perfect for reciting Lincoln’s famous addresses.
There is a small monument to Grace Bedell Billings in Delphos, but the little town is fading. To Betty, the tea cart is a lasting symbol of both American and personal history.
“Something old is just something old until you have a story,” she said. “And then it’s an antique.”