BY JEFF WILFORD
Once upon a time, there was a story around Racine that Abraham Lincoln slept here. He came to town in 1859 to visit Sen. James Doolittle at Doolittle's home, at Wisconsin Avenue and Sixth Street, for an important conference, the story went.
Most people believed it, it seems.
And then Eugene Leach came along.
Leach, a local man who took it upon himself to research much of the city's early history, researched the Lincoln story and concluded it never happened, it was a myth. He published his findings in one of the local papers, the Racine Times Call.
So much for any chance of erecting a tablet on the site.
For almost 30 years, Leach researched and recorded the history of Racine, often by talking to the people who lived here in the early years. He wrote three books, hundreds of newspaper articles and served four years as the custodian of the HistoricalMuseum in the county courthouse.
“What he did was, he sought out pioneer families, sought out information, sought out photographs," said Gerry Karwowski, operator of the Oak Clearing Museum in Yorkville and a historical researcher. “What he did was, he was the first to be a gatherer.
“With Leach, he was trying to get everything. We find mistakes only because he didn't have things we have today," Karwowski said. “There are very few blatant errors. He was very thorough."
But if Leach had been a better insurance salesman, some believe, much of Racine's history might remain a mystery or a matter for speculation.
Eugene W. Leach was born in Excelsior, Minn., the son of George W. Leach and Deberah Bianca White Leach, according to historical documents. When he was 2 years old, Leach and his parents moved to Racine.
Leach attended school in Racine, but apparently never graduated. He was a member of the First United Methodist Church.
Leach worked as a typesetter for the Racine Advocate from 1875 to 1876. He was a woodworker at the Racine Hardware Company from 1879 to 1894. Leach left that job and went to work selling insurance for Aetna Insurance Co. in 1894.
It was a fateful decision, attorney Richard G. Harvey believed. Harvey, who wrote a short biography on Leach in 1940, wrote that Leach was not very successful as an insurance agent and grew to be unhappy.
“If he had continued his work with the hardware company, no doubt he would have been more happy than he was in later years," Harvey wrote. “But in that event he would have been so occupied with his work that probably he would never have devoted any time to historical writing."
Harvey described Leach as a skilled cabinet maker and a diligent reader. He wrote that Leach was a lively young man who turned serious and rarely laughed in his later years.
But most of all, Leach had a love and knack for history.
Leach wrote his first historical book in 1912. He was persuaded by some people to write a history of the First Methodist Church of Racine, and wrote “Methodist Church and Early Racine."
Leach's next book, “The Racine County Militant," was published in 1915 and described the roles local soldiers played in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. He also wrote “Racine, Yesterday and Today."
He wrote a regular newspaper column detailing the history of Racine and the county, Karwowski said.
From 1934 to Sept. 1, 1938, he was the official county historian. He died on Dec. 7, 1938, at the age of 81. He left a history of Racine County unfinished.
Why Leach took up history, or what first sparked his interest in the subject, is unclear. Information about Leach, Racine's most prolific historian, is scant. “It seems like all the stories were about what he was writing about. They really didn't seem to be a lot about him," Karwowski said