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"There I Grew Up" – This Park Offers Presidential History in a Unique Package
This park includes a unique visitor center and an excellent living history program, but before it was added to the National Park System, it was primarily known as a memorial to the mother of one of our most famous presidents. Mom still gets plenty of respect, but her son is now the focus in a small park that has lots to offer.
Ask most Americans which state they most associate with Abraham Lincoln, and you'll likely get plenty of votes for Illinois and Kentucky. Reasonable choices, since he was born in Kentucky and went to Washington from Illinois. Lincoln, however, grew up in yet another state. Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial includes the Indiana farm where Abe spent fourteen formative years, and the area is well worth a visit.
You'll find many sites across the country that do a fine job with living history interpretation, but one of my favorites is Lincoln Boyhood. The park is just a few miles south of I-64 in southwestern Indiana, and the best time to visit is from mid-April through September, when the Lincoln Living Historical Farm is in operation.
The re-created pioneer homestead is located on the actual site of the Lincoln family farm, and includes a cabin, outbuildings, split rail fences, farm animals, vegetable and herb gardens and field crops. Rangers in period clothing perform a variety of activities typical of the 1820 era. The farm does not retain any of the original structures from Lincoln's time but was built in an attempt to depict a typical farm of his period in Indiana. It incorporates some of what is known of the Lincoln farm and activities which were a common part of the Lincoln family's daily life.
The Lincoln family moved here from Kentucky in1816, when Abraham was only seven years old. This was still the frontier—Lincoln later described it as "a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods."
Here's the land where Abe and his siblings did their lessons by the dim light of a fire, after a long day of chores. Here's the very spot he learned to split rails—and a host of other tasks that were part of carving a farm out of the wilderness. The future president also experienced sadness in this place—his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died here in 1818—and the nine-year-old boy helped make her crude wooden coffin.
Her final resting place is located in the present park, but despite Lincoln's prominent role in American life, for many years the focus at this site was not on Lincoln, but on his mother.
Until 1879, even Nancy Hanks Lincoln's grave lacked a permanent marker. The property was in private ownership until 1900, when Spencer County purchased 16 acres surrounding the gravesite of Nancy Hanks Lincoln. The celebration of the centennials of Indiana in 1916 and of Spencer County in 1918 finally began to focus attention on the site. By then the original Lincoln cabin was gone.
A 1987 administrative history of the park by NPS historian Jill York O'Bright describes early efforts to commemorate the site:
In 1917 ... members of Spencer County's centennial commission formed a committee to obtain the assistance of older residents of the county in determining the exact location of Thomas Lincoln's cabin. Twenty such residents assembled on the historic Lincoln property on March 12...This group pointed to the site they believed to be correct, and the first shovelful of dirt revealed cobbles and crockery. A marker was erected on the site on April 28, 1917, stating: "Spencer County Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Who Lived on this Spot from 1816-1830."
Efforts were made to ensure that this location would not be lost again to posterity. The state planned a bronze casting in the shape of the historic cabin sill and hearth, to be surrounded by a stone wall, and the cabin site memorial was eventually completed and installed in 1935.
By that time, the state owned and operated a sixty-acre park which included the gravesite and part of the former Lincoln farm. Noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., developed a plan for the area, and by 1938 additional land had been donated, several structures had been removed, a state highway relocated, and construction of the plaza and parking lot completed.
With the assistance of Civilian Conservation Corps, 22,441 native trees and 15,218 native shrubs were planted. One of the most dominant features of the area was a towering 120-foot tall flagstaff—still the tallest in the state—which was placed in an island in the center of the plaza.
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment during state management of the site was completion of the Memorial Building in 1943. A park publication describes the result:
...the building was designed with two halls and a connecting cloister. The resulting Memorial Court features five sculpted panels marking significant periods in the life of Abraham Lincoln. The Memorial is wholly a Hoosier creation, constructed of Indiana limestone and sandstone, with all timber cut from trees native to the area.
Abraham Lincoln Hall has features typical of early courthouses and meeting houses: the rostrum at the front of the hall and the small balcony at the rear, as well as the pew-type seats. Solid, hand-hewn trusses support the ceiling of the hall.
The interior of the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Hall is reminiscent of early Indiana days. The pegged oak floor – as well as the huge sandstone fireplace – speak to us of pioneer strength and perseverance.
For many visitors, the building's most impressive features are the five sculptured Indiana Limestone panels. Measuring eight feet tall and thirteen and one-half feet wide, each weighs ten tons, and depicts a scene from a significant stage in Lincoln's life. Nine inscriptions from Lincoln's writings are carved above the panels.
Despite the recognition of Abe Lincoln in this building, as late as the 1950s the site was still known as The Nancy Hanks Lincoln Memorial and was managed as a subunit of the Lincoln State Park. Little attention was focused on the 16th president himself.
That emphasis finally changed in 1959. United States Senator Vance Hartke (D-Indiana), declaring that "the Indiana monument is not an adequate tribute to the Great Emancipator," introduced a bill requiring the Secretary of the Interior to investigate and report to Congress concerning the feasibility of establishing a national monument at Lincoln City.
President John F. Kennedy signed the act authorizing the establishment of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial on February 19, 1962. About 114 acres was transferred from the state to National Park Service management, and the park has since grown to include just under 200 acres.
Addition of an auditorium, lobby, exhibit space and restrooms to the existing Memorial building in 1996 provided a visitor center that's still in use today, and it's a gem. Although earlier efforts to acquire and purchase key portions of the area were vital to preserving it from development, the design and construction of the Memorial building was a major legacy from the era of state management. I doubt that its use of native materials and fine workmanship will ever be surpassed in any future NPS structure.
The final major piece in development of the park was the living historical farm, constructed in 1968 using materials from an old house and barn in the area. In an interesting local version of a mini-economic stimulus package, the park hired two local men to oversee the project, along with "eight others, all unemployed local residents..."
When completed, the complex included a hewn log cabin, hewn log barn with shed, a smokehouse, a corncrib, a chicken house (added later), and a workshop, all enclosed by split rail fences. The project cost $9,597.28.
No, according to the park's administrative history, I didn't put that decimal point in the wrong place, and this was money well-spent. Plan a visit when the farm is in operation, and you'll find that learning about history can be a lot of fun. Here's one tip: the farm is a popular destination for school groups, especially in the spring, so it can be a bit busy during the middle of weekdays during that season of the year.
You'll find driving directions and other information to help plan your visit on the park website. The adjoining Lincoln State Park offers camping, cabins, and a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities, and the adjacent Lincoln Amphitheatre will reopen June 12, 2009, with a new dramatic production.
Renewed attention is being focused on Abraham Lincoln this year, the bicentennial of his birth. Whether you're a serious student of Lincoln or simply a casual tourist, a visit to Lincoln Boyhood is a must if you want to really understand the man who arrived on the Indiana frontier as a boy and departed for Illinois fourteen years later as a man with a date with destiny.