Visiting the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky is a confusing experience. The longer I explore, the more questions I have. The short movie in the visitor center indicates Abraham Lincoln only lived in Kentucky the first seven years of his life. The ten minute film focuses on Abe’s parents, Nancy and Thomas Lincoln, and explains why Thomas and the Lincoln family moved from Sinking Spring Farm to Abraham’s boyhood home at Knob Creek two years later. So why is there an historical park in Kentucky honoring Abraham Lincoln when he only lived in Kentucky the first seven years of his life?
Thomas and Nancy bought the 300 acre Sinking Spring Farm for $200 in December, 1808. Baby Abe was born February 12, 1809 in a tiny, one-room log cabin. A large, gaudy, pink granite and marble memorial building, eerily similar to the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., now stands, like a castle in a cornfield, near the site of the original log cabin. I walk up the 56 steps representing the 56 years of Abraham Lincoln’s life, open the massive door, and enter the Roman, neoclassical style structure. I feel like Alice passing through the rabbit hole. The marble and granite structure surrounds a modest, wooden structure. A simple, tiny, one-room log cabin is entombed inside the ornately carved memorial. I quickly learn from the informative volunteer that the cabin is not baby Abe’s birth cabin. It represents his birth cabin.
Living on the Kentucky frontier meant long hours for daddy Thomas plowing the stony, red clay-packed soil, harvesting just enough corn to feed the small family and few animals, and tramping through the dense woods in search of game. Mommy Nancy spent her days caring for a toddler and an infant and preparing simple meals in a cast iron skillet over an open fireplace. I take a walk along the Boundary Oak Trail to view the sinking spring that is the namesake of the farm. Perhaps this fresh water spring hidden beneath American Chestnut trees is what drew the Lincoln’s to a simple, quiet, spare life on the frontier.
A short walk from the garish memorial is the Nancy Lincoln Inn. I discover it is a store. And it has always been a store. The plaque outside says that the store and the four small cabins nearby were built in 1928 to honor Abe’s mother, Nancy Lincoln. Because Nancy only lived here for two years, the building was built to hold merchandise for sale, and the log cabins (in the style of baby Abe’s birth cabin) were constructed to accommodate paying guests, I suspect that the Nancy Lincoln Inn was built with the intention of making a profit. Nothing wrong with that. The 1920s saw a huge growth in the tourism industry. Why not grab the opportunity to sell lodging, candy, and cold beverages to people touring the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Park? Cold beverage? Great idea! I purchase an ice cold, bottled, pure cane sugar Sarsaparillo and drive the ten miles to Knob Creek.
Soon after moving to the farm, Thomas Lincoln was involved in a lawsuit disputing ownership of the land. In 1811, when little Abe was two years old, Thomas moved the Lincoln family ten miles to a 30 acre farm he leased on Knob Creek. Abraham Lincoln’s earliest memories are at his boyhood home at Knob Creek. Abe and his sister, Sarah, walked two miles to a school that did not have books or writing utensils. Lessons were taught and learned by recitation. It was at this school, near Knob Creek, that Abraham Lincoln developed his love for learning and appreciation for education. Today Knob Creek still sits on the same road (although improved with asphalt and concrete) that young Abe may or may not have seen slaves being taken to market. And yes, I tour the representative log cabin at Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek. In 1816, Thomas Lincoln lost his lawsuit to regain Sinking Springs Farm and moved his family, including seven-year-old Abe, to Illinois.
Partly because I love hiking and partly because I love history, my favorite experience at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park is walking the short Big Sink Trail. The Big Sink Trail is a .7 mile loop that meanders through the Kentucky woods of Abraham Lincoln’s early childhood. Very few visitors to the park take advantage of the well-maintained trail and it is easy to block out the sounds of nearby cars, the smells of nearby restaurants, and the sight of overhead airplanes. I can pretend, for half an hour, that I am a young Abe Lincoln, walking to school, hearing the sounds of birds twittering in the trees, smelling the wildflowers growing along the well-worn path, and seeing the leaves on the trees as they turn from green to red and drift slowly and gently to the ground. As I walk through the peaceful Kentucky woods, I ponder the purpose of the park.
Abraham Lincoln is known to have said, “I cannot tell a lie”. (Not sure if that is fact or fiction. He was a politician!) However, the historical park honoring his birth borders on the edge of gray. Is this place, where Lincoln lived for only seven years, never to return to Kentucky, an accurate representation of Abe’s earliest years? To keep Abe honest, I focus on the symbolism of the park. Despite losing their farm, their home, and their livelihood, the Lincoln family persevered and, from these humble beginnings on the edge of the frontier, baby Abraham Lincoln eventually became the 16th president of the U.S. Born in a modest, one-room log cabin, Lincoln died while living in the White House. The simple cabin enshrined in an ornate memorial stands as a symbol of what all Americans can achieve with the basic core values of hard work, determination, and perseverance.