Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Lincoln's Childhood Homes

Over the course of his life, Abraham Lincoln lived in humble homes, in middle class homes and most famously, in the home that has housed all American presidents since John Adams, the White House.

Over the course of our lifetimes, Tim and I have visited four Lincoln homes: the White House, his home in Springfield, Illinois and now two of his childhood homes on this leg of The Jacobsons' Journey.

Or perhaps I should be truthful and say that this past weekend we visited a log cabin replica of his birthplace and the stone foundation his childhood home.  Nothing else remains of his formative years.

Tim and I are en route to Washington, D.C. with scheduled stops in Louisville, KY and Nashville, TN to visit family and friends.

Terry and Debby are friends from Louisville.

However, we serendipitously stopped at two national parks, land originally owned by Thomas Lincoln, father of the famous Abe.  At the Black River Visitors Center rest stop on Interstate 64 just across the state line from Illinois into Indiana, we read an exhibit about Lincoln's Boyhood Home located nearby.  With time to kill before our dinner with Louisville friends that evening, we decided to detour there and add another tick mark on the list of National Park Service properties we've visited during our first year on the road.

That's our RV, the Dawntreader on the right.

Lincoln's Boyhood National Memorial is just ten minutes off I-64.  This is the frontier property claimed by Thomas Lincoln after land disputes in Kentucky forced him to move his family 100 miles west to this densely forested claim.  

It was here that Abraham spent his formative years from seven to 21, years that shaped his sense of honesty, pursuit of learning, respect--but not love--for hard work, compassion and notions of right and wrong.  

Illustration displayed at Lincoln's Boyhood Home

"My father taught me how to work, but not to love it...I'd rather tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh--anything but work," recalled Lincoln.

Only the stone foundation of the Lincoln's one-room cabin remains.  

However, a living farm, staffed by volunteers, recreates the hard life of pioneers who settled this area.  While we watched, a volunteer demonstrated how early settlers made candles by pouring melted beeswax into a tin candle mold and placing the mold into a tub of water to set.  

Yet, what I found most meaningful was the Trail of Twelve Stones.  Leading from the site of his boyhood home to the cemetery where his mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln is buried, this 1/2-mile path through the woods is dotted with stones, enduring witnesses of significant events in Lincoln's life.  

Gravestone of Nancy Hanks Lincoln

Two years after their arrival, his beloved mother contracted fatal milk sickness, a disease that occurs after drinking milk from cows that grazed upon white snakeroot, a plant that contains tremetol which is poisonous to humans.  In 1845, Abraham Lincoln penned these words that capture his feelings about his boyhood home:

"My childhood-home I see again, 
And gladden with the view:
And still as memories crowd my brain, 
There's sadness in it too."

A selfie with Jillian

Saturday morning we traveled from Louisville, KY to visit our daughter Jillian who lives in Nashville, TN.  We didn't plan to stop, but I noticed while mapping our route on the atlas that Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace was not too far out of our way.  Since this weekend was shaping up to be an educational exploration of Lincoln's childhood, I talked Tim into diverting from the interstate to Hodgenville, KY and Sinking Spring Farm, the scene of his birth. 

Thomas Lincoln, Abraham's father, was the younger son of his parents which meant that he did not inherit their land, but instead had to make his own way in the world.  He became a skilled carpenter but what he really wanted to do was farm. 

When he finally had enough savings, he purchased 230 acres and moved his pregnant wife and one-year-old daughter into a one-room log cabin built on a hillside near a water source called Sinking Spring.

Almost 100 years after Lincoln was born, a cabin thought to be his birthplace was disassembled and reconstructed within the Memorial.  

It's not the original Lincoln cabin but it is similar to what Thomas Lincoln might have built.  

The Memorial itself is an imposing edifice, financed with small donations from countless Americans and placed at the height of the hill with 56 steps symbolizing the 56 years of Abraham Lincoln's life leading up to it.

I always thought the Lincolns were dirt-poor.  I'd read what I called, based on the book's bright color, his 'orange biography,' one from the children's biography series, Childhood of Famous Americans, published in the 1950s by Bobbs-Merrill when I was a child, never realizing that though based on fact, much of their content was fictionalized.  So, while the Lincolns' pioneer lives were austere, a look at the tax roles of LaRue County where Abe's birthplace cabin sat show that the Lincolns were in the top 20% of landowners in the county.

Land disputes were common in that day when surveyors were few so when his claim to Sinking Spring Farm was contested, Thomas moved his family of four ten miles to a farm on Knob Creek where the land was richer.  This location is also under the authority of the National Park Service.  It was here that Abe received his only formal education, two years of blab schooling so-called because of the constant recitation of lessons, a technique much favored when books were few.  It's hard to believe that this gifted orator and statesman had only two years of formal education.  Amazing what one could achieve with only a few books and the Bible as resources!

So over the course of this weekend, we've gained new insights into President Lincoln's life, insights that we would never have gained had we stayed on the interstate.
"I happened, temporarily, to occupy the White House.  I am a living witness that any of your children may come here as my father's child has." ~ Abraham Lincoln

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