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Myths and legends of the Governor’s Mansion

Illinois first lady Diana Rauner. | Provided Photo

Who knew?

Was the Governor’s Mansion once haunted? (Yes. Well, who knows?)

Was a pony once trained to walk up the mansion’s steps? (Yes.)

Did Abraham Lincoln actually sleep in his bed in the mansion’s Lincoln Room? (No.)

Did a former governor’s wife leave behind notebooks containing the menus served to 24,000 people? (Yes.)

Did the mansion once maintain a private, well-stocked barroom manned for legislators 24/7? (Yes.)

The $15 million renovation of Springfield’s dilapidated old pile of bricks known as the Governor’s Executive Mansion was a shock when it was announced it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers a penny.


“The Governor’s Mansion had become a metaphor for the state, an embarrassment,” Illinois first lady Diana Rauner told Sneed.

“Once a symbol of a special time in our state’s history when it was built in 1855, the executive mansion was left to rot.”

“We both made a promise before the election to restore the mansion and we kept that promise,” said Rauner, who moved into a drafty bungalow with her husband next to the State Fairgrounds goat house for 14 months to get the job done.

And in the midst of the mansion’s makeover, a few surprises surfaced.

“We were stunned to find the the painting of two of Gov. Richard J. Oglesby’s sons,” said Justin Blandford, the new curator of the Governor’s Mansion. “It was decaying for decades in the mansion’s basement, the frame was in pieces, and there were two dozen holes in the canvas.”

Painted by artist Franklin Tuttle in 1888, Oglesby’s sons were “dressed in fun historical clothing, showcased playing a game like badminton,” said Blanchard.

“It was restored and now hangs in the mansion again,” he said.

Apparently no longer hanging around the mansion is the legend of the tenuous “ghost.”

Tittle-tattle has it Helen Wadsworth Yates, wife of the first native-born Illinois governor, Gov. Richard Yates Jr., was unhappy with the upkeep of her bedroom across from the Lincoln bedroom — and for decades would return to check on its maintenance. The water-stained torn wallpaper and ratty furniture have since been removed. “Not many visitors requested that room,” chuckled former Gov. Pat Quinn.

While two large mid-19th century gilt mirrors were being removed from the dining room — gifts from the family of Civil War Gov. Yates — a note fell out dated April 13, 2006.

It was written by Robbie Lawrence, 8, who spent one night at the mansion as a reward for doing a good deed; the other mirror contained a signed note by former Gov. George Ryan and wife, Lura Lynn, and contained the signatures of all their grandchildren.

“Sure, I remember when we did that,” said Ryan. “The kids loved living in the mansion.”

“I don’t think most people know what a vital community Springfield once was,” said Rauner. “When the mansion was built, Springfield was a dynamic place.

“And when Gov. [William] Stratton was in office in the 1950s, his wife, Shirley, described mansion life in a dynamically social way,” she said.

“Shirley is a spunky, plucky lady now in her 90s and I went to lunch with her during the early phase of the renovation,” said Rauner.

“She described a totally different way of life at the mansion, a special room with a private bar staffed 24/7 for legislators. It was like a version of the “Mad Men” era in the ’50s and ’60s, keeping notebooks of everything she served — so she never served the same menu twice.

“Dorothy said she managed a staff of 30 at the mansion, and dressed formally all the time. It was a much more glamorous time.”

“She said she left the notebooks behind at the mansion when her husband left office which had logged all the menus she had served to 24,000 people at the mansion — and was wondering if we ever found them! No such luck.”

When the Rauners moved into the mansion, the roof was leaking, the elevator didn’t work, paint was peeling, the staircase was a mess, the private kitchen was a microwave and a small sink.

The renovation project also inspired the first lady’s interest in writing a children’s book.

“It will be about Florence Fifer (Bohrer), the daughter of Gov. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Fifer, who became the state’s first female legislator in the 1920s.

“Florence broke the mold.

“She wrote a memoir; trained her pony to walk up the steps of the mansion; spent her early days sledding on the mansion hill; was 12 years old when her father was inaugurated in 1889; slid down the mansion banister when her father was inaugurated, which caused quite a stir; and loved scaring the crows to frighten the cows before they had to be milked — so no one could milk them!

“I love history. And buildings — like the mansion — are a physical representation of that history. That’s why it was so much fun for me and why we added an education center.”

The newly rebuilt mansion will officially open July 14 and be open daily from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. except major holidays, replete with guided tours.

But there will be NO pony on the mansion grounds trained specifically to walk up the steps of the new Governor’s Mansion.