More than the Emancipation Proclamation or the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln contributed something vital to the American legacy. Rawboned, an axe slung over his shoulder, he personifies our treasured myth that a person of humble circumstances can discover within himself a rich treasure of ability through which he transforms himself and the world.
Drawn to books, to dreams, and a larger world, Lincoln sat on split rail fences watching travelers on the highways which ran by his boyhood homes. He was an only son in a day when large families were prized for the work they could accomplish and so he obediently, if reluctantly, answered his father's summons to plow or plant. He discovered his calling to the law when he bought a barrel from a stranger and discovered at the bottom Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law.
However difficult it may have been for Lincoln to emerge from the backwoods and into the pages of history, it is easy for travelers today to find the man's origins. The Lincoln Heritage Trail through Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois covers 900 miles and more if one samples the interesting if unrelated places along the way. The Lincoln sites, complete with visitors centers and documentaries on the 16th President's life, may be visited at random or in sequence.
Nowhere are the incongruities of this life more apparent than at his birthplace, Sinking Spring Farm on Route 1 in Hodgenville, Ky. The humble log cabin where Lincoln was born in 1809 once toured on exhibition; now it is encased in marble and granite approached by a climb of 56 broad stone steps. A walkway leads to the Boundary Oak which until its death in 1976 marked the edge of Lincoln's world as an infant and to the spring which gave the property its name.
When he was two the family moved 10 miles northeast to Knob Creek and more fertile land. One can drive on Route 64 past small weathered barns and black Angus herds to visit the site and a reconstructed log cabin with characteristic 16- by-18-foot dimensions. In this place Tom and Nancy Hanks Lincoln lived with their son, whom they named after his grandfather, and with his older sister. Nancy Hank's loom is set up in the corner and a trundle bed where the children slept pokes out from under the adults' bed. When Abraham was a toddler his brother Thomas was born but survived only a short time.
In the Knob Creek area, Lincoln had his first taste of formal education at a "blab school" where children stood and simultaneously recited their lessons aloud. Some say that as a boy Lincoln would see slaves driven along the Nashville- Lousville road in front of the cabin and that seeing men in chains decided him once and for all against slavery.
Whatever knowledge of life could be drawn there, a living could not. Losing his claim to the property, Thomas Lincoln moved his family in 1816 to make a new home across the Ohio River in Indiana where he could have a surer title to the land.
Lincoln spent his formulative years around Pigeon Creek in what is now the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Ind. He arrived a boy of seven and left a man of 21, 6 feet 4 inches tall. If he did figure his sums on the back of a shovel with a piece of coal or study sprawled before firelight, it was on this site.
Although the cabin is a reconstruction, the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial gives the clearest picture of what frontier years would have been like. The Visitors Center offers a 25-minute film narrated by the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen. Walking up a formal landscaped path through thickly shurbbed land, one passes the grave of Nancy Hanks. Beyond the cemetery is a trail past fields of corn and wheat, patches of cotton, tobacco, and flax which opens onto the Living Historical Farm. Just before the split rail fence one sees the wide lane which was a national highway where Lincoln might have watched travelers to other cities.
The actual site of the Lincoln home is marked by a bronze casting of cabin sill logs and a fireplace, surrounded by a stone wall. Beyond it is a log cabin , smokehouse, carpenter shop, barn, corncrib, and chicken house, all the features of a southern Indiana farm. From May to October, the farm is peopled by interpreters in costume. A demonstration farm maintains the grounds, plows, plants, harvests, and takes care of horses, oxen, sheep, a cow, calf, and a brood of chickens.
A lady of the cabin cards and spins wool, hangs herbs to dry and sometimes, to the delight of visitors, bakes cornbread from grain she has ground in a wooden pestle. In the relatively warm months of the year, the life of the farm seems hardy, as it undoubtedly was, but imagining the four Lincolns huddled in the 16-by-18-foot cabin against the elements together day and night one sees how constricted the life must have been, at least for one who had his own very separate ambitions.
For a contrasting view of what prosperous life in the area could be like, go to Gentryville, a 15-minute car ride away on the Old Boonville-Corydon Road and the Col. William Jones House built in 1834. Colonel Jones employed Lincoln to help in his store and in 1844 hosted him when he revisited the area campaigning for presidential nominee Henry Clay. Restored in 1976, this house with its original soft brick walls, three bricks thick, looks surprisingly new. Lincoln addressed his former neighbors in the room to the right which now has spool beds and a round rag rug. The upstairs loft offers a spectacular view of the southern Indiana woods.
In Vincennes where in 1779, George Rogers Clark dealt a body blow to England's hopes of colonizing the American Northwest, one crosses the Wabash River on the Lincoln Memorial Bridge at the place where the Lincolns crossed to Illinois in 1830.Tradition says the Lincolns stayed here three days to have a blacksmith attend to their wagon tires and that young Abraham stopped by the offices of the Western Sun, the newspaper he read while living around Pigeon Creek. The office, with the printing press Lincoln supposedly wanted to see, now stands in the Harrison Historical Park, dedicated to the memory of William Henry Harrison who governed the five states of the Indiana Territory 12 years and lived only 31 days as President of the United States.
About a 90-minute drive over the bridge into Illinois one comes to the Vandalia Statehouse Historic Site. From 1820 to 1839 this city was the capital of Illinois. Young Abraham Lincoln received his license to practice law here, served five years in the Illinois House of Representatives, made his first speech against slavery, and first met his future opponent Stephen Douglas. The old State House with its creaking floors and coal stoves is filled with the long tables and straight- backed chairs synonymous with the conduct of government. Quills and antique documents litter the tables as if Lincolns and Douglasses might still be at work.
To the northwest off Ill. 33 between Charleston and Mattoon lies the spot where the Lincolns eventually settled after leaving Indiana. Now known as the Lincoln Log Cabin Historical Site, in Thomas Lincoln's day it was called Goosenest Prairie and gave Thomas Lincoln enough trouble that he often had to call on his lawyer son. In 1841 Abraham presented his father with $200 to pay for 40 acres, which allowed Thomas and his wife to retain it for their lives.Both are buried in Shiloh Cemetery at the site.
At one time 18 people lived in the restored cabin -- the elder Lincolns, Sara Lincoln's children, and their spouses and children. There was one sleeping quarter area, a loft and a kitchen. Custumed interpreters play the role of Lincoln's step-siblings and provide information in atrocious English ("We's goan see Abe prete soon," etc.). Some experts doubt the family's grammar was quite this bad, but when one interpreter said Mary Todd Lincoln refused to come visit, I understood why.Still, these performances are primarily for the benefit of schoolchildren. Besides the log cabin and cemetery, there is the Moore home, still to be restored, a few miles to the north.President-elect Abraham Lincoln dined here with his stepmother and her daughter in 1861 before leaving for Washington.
Mount Pulaski on Ill. 32 northwest of Mattoon offers the State Memorial Courthouse, part of the Eighth Circuit court system which Lincoln traveled for nearly a quarter of a century. The jurisdiction was slightly larger than the state of Maryland and fees were small, but Lincoln was compensated by the close friendships he formed and the political alliances he made, and the stories he swapped along the way. One of Lincoln's more famous cases involved a patented cradle which would rock itself. The judge asked how it could be stopped and the future president responded, "It's like some of the glib talkers you and I know, judge, it won't stop until it runs down."
In New Salem, a state park near Petersburg on Ill. 97, one encounters the place Lincoln entered as a n'er-do-well and left as an up-and-coming young lawyer. This village is an authentic reproduction of the settlement Abraham Lincoln entered in 1831, a 22-year-old man who had just left his father's home and was, in his own words, "as aimless as a piece of driftwood." His first job was poling a flatboat down smaller Illinois rivers to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans. Later he was a surveyor like George Washington, whose biography was the first book he read, a merchant, a captain of volunteers in the Black Hawk War, a postmaster, and a lawyer. His fellow townsmen elected him to the state Legislature in 1834 and again in 1836.
Until he found himself, Lincoln was a great one for reading and swapping stories. He attributed these habits, along with his partner's drinking, for the failure of his first business venture, the Lincoln and Berry store.
The little town of neat and well-appointed log cabins encompasses the Rutledge-Cameron Grist Mill, homes, and places of business. Costumed volunteers staff the site and tend livestock from oxen to chickens and give a visitor a sense of how this busy community provided the conversation and opportunities Lincoln craved. The most important places to see, if one must select because of lack of time, are the Rutledge Tavern, the Hill-McNamar store because McNamar was Ann Rutledge's fiance, the Lincoln-Berry store, and the operating blacksmith shop. Besides hammering the anvil, blacksmith Louis Moore might demonstrate the toys he played with 70 years ago -- his pop gun, "water pistol," and a little wooden toy that climbs ropes. Moore now says he wishes he'd paid more attention to his blacksmith father rather than tinkering with his Model T.
New Salem eventually was eclipsed by Petersburg and so by 1837 it appeared that Lincoln's future lay in Springfield, which would be his home for a quarter century. Coming into town on Ill. 97 one finds the Oak Ridge Cemetery and the imposing structure which became Lincoln's final resting place in 1902. The 114 th Regiment of the Union Army still raises and lowers the flag there.
Springfield reconstructed its Old State House about 10 years ago. Upstairs in the Hall of Representatives Lincoln made his "House Divided" speech. On the first floor to the right of the staircase is a holograph of the Gettysburg Address which Lincoln copied for auction to raise funds for Union troops. On the corner across the brick street from the old capital are Lincoln's former law offices.
Not to be missed is the two-story Lincoln home on Eighth and Jackson a few blocks away. The railsplitter did not live here -- a prosperous, compassionate, and obviously ambitious lawyer had taken his place. To the left of the entrance is the formal room where Lincoln accepted his party's presidential nomination. To the right is the sitting room where Lincoln, too tall for the furniture of his day, upended the rocker and leaned against it while he sat on the floor with his brood of sons.Look for the eight-tune music box and stereo- scope, as close to a stereo and TV as a mid 19th-century family could come.
As one travels the Lincoln Heritage Trail the mists of myth begin to fall away and one encounters not a type, but a particular human being, one not born or bred to be president but one who made himself just that by determined development of astonishing natural endowments.