As Abraham Lincoln watched the theatre stage, John Wilkes Booth crept from the shadows behind, drew his derringer pistol, and fired. Mortally wounded, the president slumped forward, never to regain consciousness.
Over the next century, controversy surrounded the site of Lincoln’s assassination. Some wanted Ford’s Theater to stand as a tribute to Lincoln’s life or a memorial to his martyrdom. Others simply wanted to raze the building and forget the terrible episode. But thanks to the determination of two North Dakotans, today visitors can tour Ford’s Theater and see a replica of the presidential box where America’s great leader became another casualty of the Civil War.
Shortly after Lincoln’s death, the theater was converted into office space for various federal agencies. Over the next half century, most traces of the original interior were destroyed and forgotten. The first move towards restoration came in 1932. At the prompting of Lt. Col. Ulysses S. Grant III the former theater was converted into a museum and transferred to the National Park Service. The building housed a large collection of Lincoln memorabilia, but the actual theater was nothing more than painted lines, outlining the former stage and presidential box. Painted footprints traced the assassin’s path. For some, the state of the museum only encouraged them to work harder to return Ford Theater to its original appearance. Among them, North Dakota’s Republican Senator, Milton Young.
Appointed to the US Senate in 1945, Young wasted little time in contacting fellow North Dakotan Melvin Hildreth, Jr., a Democratic Party official with considerable influence in Washington DC. Like Senator Young, Hildreth wanted the National Park Service to rebuild the stage and presidential box exactly as it appeared in 1865. Not only would it stand as a powerful tribute to the “Great Emancipator,” but they also recognized its potential as a tourist attraction.
Their first proposal in 1946 made little progress. Many still thought the painful assassination best forgotten, while others were certain the theater would only glorify John Wilkes Booth. The Washington theater industry feared it would open as a government-sponsored theater, leading to unfair competition. But undeterred, Young and Hildreth continued their work, enlisting the support of various dignitaries and actresses, like Helen Hayes, to testify before Congress in support of restoration. The first breakthrough finally came in 1955 when Congress approved Senator Young’s bill for an engineering study. With Young’s continued support, nearly a decade later, Congress approved over $2 million for restoration. On this date in 1968, Ford’s Theater reopened as a museum and private theater.
Senator Milton Young received the first Ford’s Theater Lincoln Medal in 1981 for his legislation efforts. Sadly, Melvin Hildreth, Jr. did not live long enough to see their work come to fruition. He passed away in 1959, nine years before the restoration was complete.
Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall
Eriksmoen, Curt. Did You Know That...?: 47 Fascinating Stories About People Who Have Lived in North Dakota. Vol. 1: McCleery & Sons Publishing, 2006.
“Ford’s Theater Lincoln Medal.” Ford’s Theater. "http://www.fordstheatre.org/home/explore-lincoln/honoring-lincoln" http://www.fordstheatre.org/home/explore-lincoln/honoring-lincoln .
Lockwood, John. “Many incarnations for Ford’s Theater.” The Washington Times, March 8, 2008.
Reffell, Eva. Ford’s Theatre’s Reconstruction: Warehouse, Museum, Pilgrimage Site (1865–1968). 2004. "http://www.si.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/ArchivesSem/papers/EvaReffell.pdf" http://www.si.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/ArchivesSem/papers/EvaReffell.pdf .