The roots of the Railsplitter Festival begin in 1970 at Jerry's Drive-In on Woodlawn Road, Lincoln, IL. Daris Knauer met with the co-chairman of tourism of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, LeRoy Buckheit. LeRoy was "flipping burgers" in his restaurant as they talked about an event, because there was a busload of people in the restaurant. Daris had an idea about holding an event that was related to Abraham Lincoln’s days in Logan County. LeRoy mentioned that they should name the event the "Railsplitter" because Abe Lincoln was known for splitting rails. The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce sponsored the first and second Railsplitter events.
During the first Railsplitter event, a man from Petersburg, IL named Johnny Jones split rails for the state of Illinois, and later became a judge at the inaugural event. Soon after, Johnny established "rail rules" for the contest/competition. These rules have evolved over the years, but have stayed generally the same. Paul Harvey, the famous radio personality, was heard to mention that the first Lincoln Railsplitting Festival was held in Lincoln, IL. The fairgrounds hosted the event for the first two to three years, however those in charge of the event thought it would be more appropriate for it to be held on the grounds of Lincoln College, named for Lincoln before he died.
A parade starting in downtown Lincoln and ending at the Lincoln College campus kicked off the festival. However, in the 1970's an Ice Cream Social was the starting event for the weekend. The Ice Cream Social had another purpose besides quelling the desire for ice cream; the number of tickets to the Ice Cream Social she sold selected the Railsplitter Queen. (At right, a Queen cuts the ribbon to the festival.)
The Railsplitter Festival was held at Lincoln College for several years, until it grew too big for the location and was moved back to the Logan County Fairgrounds.
During the first years of the festival, emphases was made on historical accuracy. All those who demonstrated authentic displays wore period costumes. There was one small hitch in the desire for authenticity; the only sources of food for the event were donations from civic, church, and community organizations. The demonstrations were intended to show the community of current and future generations how their ancestors lived and to encourage interest in the historical preservation of that period.
Some of the events included: a cow chip throwing contest (pictured at left below), a cow and goat milking contest (goat milking pictured at right below), wooden shingle (shake) making contest done with a wooden fo (tool), goose plucking, sheep shearing with hand-cranked powered sheers/clippers, watermelon seed spitting contest, tobacco spitting contest, and much more. It was with pride that Lincoln was the "Home of the Original Railsplitting Festival" and should be known as "The Railsplitting Capitol of the World." It spurred other national competitions. The states attending and participating in this festival included Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford came to Lincoln on the Amtrak train. All the planning for his visit took place in Congressman Ed Madigan's office. Daris shared the story of how they arranged to have President Gerald Ford re-christen the city of Lincoln from the platform of the train with a cup of watermelon juice in spite of his security guards discouraging this act. Daris also tells the story of how he "told the President what to do" by telling him how to "split a rail." And he did!
Throughout the years, several women have contributed greatly to the Railsplitting Competition, but few have actually been competitors. In 1992, a young woman named Heidi Rankin appeared in an article written by the Lincoln Courier. Heidi, at the age of 13, had become a Railsplitter, and was competing in the Junior division of the National Competition in Lincoln. This was not her first time to split, but it drew a lot of local media attention. Today, it is not unusual at all to find young girls and young women following in Heidi’s footsteps and giving the men a run for their money in the competition. Women have their own sections of competition in the Tomahawk Throw, Corn Shelling Contest, and the Firewood Split.
In today's Railsplitter Festival, there are not many of the original contests remaining, but there are a few, and they are bolstered by new events that constantly bring in more and more contestants from out of state. One of the more unique attractions of the Railsplitter Festival is the reenactment of the christening of Lincoln. One Abe Lincoln impersonator, and three other men and one young boy stand up for each of the people who were with him at the time, and pour watermelon juice on the ground. Children often line up at the fence to watch, hoping that one of the actors does not like watermelon and will get his piece of melon. For many years, the longtime Abe Lincoln impersonator Charles Ott acted the part of Abe Lincoln in this reenactment. Each year, the Railsplitter Festival in Lincoln, IL is attended by competitors from Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia, and of course the more local attendees from all parts of Illinois. We have even had competitors who were from Chicago come down and enjoy the fun of splitting rails.
The Railsplitter event has a constitution, charter, and is properly registered with the State of Illinois as a National event. The Railsplitter owns the registration, tradename, and the charter name, which is officialy, the Logan County Railsplitting Association. Lloyd Ostendorf, a well known local artist, created the original logo for the Logan County Railsplitting Association in 1960. This logo is still used today in many of their publications. The Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County has assisted with volunteerism and finance during the years of the festival. This three-day event has tremendously boosted the economic impact of Logan County during its 45-year history.