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JONESBORO — Bills in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives that could boost tourism in Southern Illinois are advancing. The companion bills, S.2608 and H.R.2879, would add the cities of Jonesboro and Freeport and Livingston County to the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area.

“We’ve been hoping for this for about eight years.” said Linda Hileman, president of Union County-based PAST (Promoting Appreciation of Structural Treasures).

The Lincoln Heritage Area covers 42 counties across Illinois. The additional cities and county would mean that all the sites of Lincoln’s legal career and all Lincoln-Douglas debate sites would be included in the heritage area.

“The Abraham Lincoln National heritage area was formed in 2008, the year of the sesquicentennial of the Lincoln-Douglas debates," Hileman said. "They left us out, as well as Freeport."

She added that the 42 counties in the area are in central Illinois and are all contiguous. The area includes five of seven debate sites.

“It would be a tremendous boost to Jonesboro and Union County. They award grants to the sites in the heritage area. It also is connected to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield,” Hileman said.

The museum has brochures available about the heritage area. Hileman said that would expose Jonesboro to a statewide audience, as well as to visitors from other states. According to Sarah Seiler Watson, executive director of Looking for Lincoln, this designation would give Jonesboro permissions to use federal resources for programming, preservation and education.

Jonesboro has several sites visited by Abraham Lincoln in 1858, including Lincoln Memorial Picnic Grounds, the site of Lincoln’s Sept. 15, 1858, debate with Stephen A. Douglas; the courthouse site, which was on the Jonesboro square; and a privately owned house where Lincoln stayed with his friend, D.L. Phillips, while he was in town for the debate.

PAST Heritage House in Jonesboro has a room dedicated to the Lincoln-Douglas debate and events surrounding it that features artifacts and memorabilia. The room also contains displays from C-Span’s 1994 re-enactment of the debate in Jonesboro and a 2008 re-enactment commemorating the sesquicentennial of the debates.

Hileman said members of PAST recently learned that Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister, Martha White, and her husband moved to Anna after the Civil War in 1868. She also died in Anna.

“We just keep finding more and more Lincoln history in the county,” Hileman said.

The bills are sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk and were sent for full consideration by the Senate on July 13. Reps. Mike Bost, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Cheri Bustos and Rodney Davis sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives.

For more information about the history of Union County and Lincoln’s visit to the county, stop by the PAST Heritage House at 102 S. Main St. in Jonesboro from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. each Sunday through October.

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Marilyn Halstead is a reporter covering Williamson County.

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