Lincoln lore

Last Updated 30 June 2012, 15:03 IST

On a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, sujoy dhar takes a trail back to Lincoln’s time, through a replica of the famed log cabin, the mysterious Sinking Spring and a visit to Knob Creek Farm.

Kentucky, the picturesque upper south state of USA, known for its verdant meadows, the Derby horses and food chains like KFC, is not a new place for me, having been associated with the universities there for years now.

But this year, when I was returning from Campbellsville University and as we were passing through a place called Hodgenville, my academic partner and fellow journalist Laura suggested we take a little detour in the direction of a signpost that pointed towards the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.

I was pleasantly surprised and excited with the idea of discovering the birthplace of the 16th President of USA, whose ideas shaped modern America as much as it influenced many other parts of the world.

I never knew that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator as he is known for abolishing slavery in USA, was born here in Kentucky. So, as I stepped into the green campus, it was like walking back in time on the trail of one of the tallest American presidents who famously defined democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Four score and seven years ago

Abraham Lincoln was the first US president born west of the Appalachian Mountains. At the memorial building here at Hodgenville, amid the sprawling green park (Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, National Historical Park, Kentucky) maintained as part of the National Park Service, a one-room log cabin — a replica of the original one Lincoln was born in, at Sinking Springs Farm on February 12, 1809 — stands as mute testimony to what life was like in USA then, a time when Kentucky was a rugged frontier.

However, when Abraham was two-and-a-half, his father had moved his young family 10 miles away to a farm on Knob Creek, which visitors can see after a visit to the memorial park. The park also has a museum, and screens a film on Lincoln. The family lived at Knob Creek from 1811 to 1816.

A visit to the birthplace site, with the log cabin as its central attraction, reminds one of the humble journey that had begun here, a journey that took Lincoln to the White House in Washington.

Outside the imposing memorial building is Sinking Spring, a landmark destination which might have guided Lincoln’s father to choose this place as his residence. Sinking Spring, located just below the hill on which Abraham Lincoln was born, is also known as Rock Spring and Cave Spring.

It is called Sinking Spring as the water dropped into a pit and disappeared into the earth. The mysterious spring is still a tourist attraction today. According to historical references, the Lincolns depended on this spring for their daily water supply. Weary travellers would stop here to drink the refreshingly cool water.

Abraham Lincoln probably tasted his first drink of water from this spring. The appearance of the spring has changed considerably since the Lincoln era, the tourist material available here informs. The area was modified during early years of park development.

But, the natural rock formations along the back wall have been changed by nature and continue to instill impressions of a homesteader’s life, it says. The large white oak tree at the Sinking Spring Farm, which was about 28-years-old when Lincoln was born, died in 1976 at age 195 (its cross section is kept in the adjacent museum now).

Inside the Memorial Building, the biggest attraction is the one-room log cabin. The Memorial Building itself is Beaux-Arts, neo-classical, architecture designed by John Russell Pope.

In 1909, the cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt and the building was dedicated in 1911 by President William Howard Taft. “Here over the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born, destined to preserve the Union and free the slave, a grateful people have dedicated this memorial to unity, peace, and brotherhood among the states,” reads the inscription on the memorial. The original log cabin that Lincoln was reputed to have been born in was dismantled sometime before 1865. But history and local beliefs say that the one kept inside the Memorial Building has logs from the original cabin in which Lincoln was born.

According to the National Park Service, the Sinking Spring’s land changed hands several times after the Lincolns left in 1811. In 1894, Alfred W Dennett, a New York-based businessman, purchased 110 acres of the property and shortly thereafter began to create a park known as Lincoln Spring Farm and Lincoln Birthplace. In 1895, Dennett acquired a nearby, aging log cabin, which according to local tradition contained some of the original logs from the Lincoln cabin, and moved it to the site. In 1905, he sold the property in an auction. Whether or not the cabin was built with logs of Lincoln’s original house, some of the oak and chestnut logs are from that period. The log house measures about 13x17 feet and has one window, one door and a stone fireplace inside.

In the museum inside the park, a room like the one during Lincoln’s time was recreated with a humble bed, a spinning wheel and some other articles. Also in display is a cross-section of the Boundary Oak tree, mentioned above, that died in 1976.

The Lincoln birthplace is also about a visit to Knob Creek Farm, where the family had moved when Lincoln was two. From 1811 to 1816, Abraham Lincoln lived here till he was eight. Now, the Knob Creek site has four buildings. It was here that Lincoln had almost died from drowning in the creek. He was saved by his friend, Austin Gollaher, who had extended a branch for him to hold. “My earliest recollection is of the Knob Creek place,” wrote Abraham Lincoln on June 4, 1860, to Samuel Haycraft of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Haycraft had invited the future president to visit his childhood home in Kentucky. 

The Lincolns had actually leased 30 acres of a 230-acre farm in the Knob Creek Valley, while waiting for the land dispute to be settled. Abraham Lincoln’s first memories are from his time here, working alongside his father, playing with his sister, and assisting his adored mother. The family left Knob Creek and Kentucky in 1816 and moved to Spencer County, Indiana.

(Published 30 June 2012, 12:22 IST)

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