More than a decade before the magnificent temple dedicated to the memory of the 16th President was built in Washington, DC…
The Birth Place…ish
… a fine new-classical Greek temple was designed, built and dedicated to house the birthplace and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It was located in remote little Hodgenville, Kentucky, just a few miles from where Tom and Nancy Lincoln gave birth to their son in 1809.
In 1809, the area was part of Hardin County (now Larue County), and always how Lincoln himself referred to the place of his birth. Hodgenville, a little town in the middle of not-very-much, was selected for the singular honor, since it lies between Lincoln’s actual birthplace on some 300 acres purchased by Thomas Lincoln for $200 in Sinking Spring, and the Knob Creek Farm where AL lived between the ages of 2 and 7. He had no personal memory of the place and his parents were long dead. The land and the cabin changed hands several times by 1865.
Lest anyone get the idea that the little log cabin honored and protected inside the temple on the hill is actually the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, rest easy. It is not. According to Robert Lincoln, at the time of its dedication, the actual cabin rotted away in disrepair by the time his father was in the White House.
Then of course, there are some folks who claim that the honored and protected cabin was made from some of the logs and timbers from the original, and which was moved and toured around the country as a popular exhibit. The only definitive statement, is that it is not the original cabin, and it is also doubtful that any of the timbers were cut by Tom Lincoln.
Ergo, it is a symbolic replica of a log cabin of that era, of that rude construction, and of a commensurate size.
The Cabin Makes the Rounds
Despite whether or not the cabin was Lincoln-genuine, following the assassination of the 16th President, myths arose, and the great man of log cabin fame became a legend in the hearts of his countrymen.
In 1894, Alfred Dennet and Rev. James Bigham (who were not averse to making some money) scoured the area and finally discovered an old eyesore that they believed (or convinced themselves) to have been the actual log cabin where Lincoln was born. They purchased the land and rotting structure for $3000, and dismantled it, to be rebuilt elsewhere – in a far more accessible place than tiny Hodgenville. They had hope it would become a tourist attraction for the Grand Army of the Republic. It did not live up to expectations.
As a matter of fact, the cabin was dismantled and rebuilt several times over the next decades – and attracted huge visitors when it was on display at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial in Nashville. A similar log cabin, said to be Jefferson Davis’ birthplace was also on display.
Then both cabins were dismantled and shipped to New York, to be exhibited at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. While sincere care was taken in the dismantle-mantle process, it appears that some of the logs and boards may have been commingled.
But perhaps Rev. Bigham, who had been eager to stir up the ballyhoo, said it best: “He [Lincoln] was born in a log cabin, right? And all log cabins look pretty much alike.”
The Centennial Year
With the centennial year of Lincoln’s birth (1809) approaching, the nation understandably wanted to honor the great man and neither knew (nor cared) whether the log cabin was the real deal.
So, in 1906, with both Dennet and Bigham dead, the Lincoln Farm Association was established to raise money to purchase the land surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Among many prominent founding members were Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Journalist Ida Tarbell and William Jennings Bryan. They also commissioned architect John Russell Pope to design an appropriate (i.e. impressive) building to house the “supposed” birthplace cabin that had been making rounds for years.
Money thus raised, land thus purchased and designs thus accepted, it fell to President Theodore Roosevelt to lay the cornerstone on February 12, 1909. Despite wet weather and mud, an estimated 12,000 people turned out for the ceremony.
In 1911, the actual work began, and the beautiful marble and granite Beaux Arts style temple was constructed. The symbolism was carefully designed: 16 windows and rosettes, for the 16th President; 56 steps, signifying Lincoln’s age at his death. All was set to bring the log cabin back to Hodgenville and rebuild it for its permanent enshrinement.
But, as they remeasured the carefully measured cabin, they discovered it was too large for the assigned space. Perhaps the measuring was askew. Perhaps a few “Jeff Davis logs” got into the mix.
The upshot was that the cabin’s construction had to be shortened by a couple of feet all the way around so it could fit. By the time of its dedication, the cabin was considered by most to be a replica.
President William Howard Taft did the honors at its dedication ceremony. An estimated 3,000 people attended, and the Lincoln Farm Association transferred the deed to the State of Kentucky.
Nevertheless, Robert Lincoln, the 16th President’s only surviving son, who was never known to let his enthusiasm run away with him, considered it “a fraud.”
The site is now the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, operated by the National Park Service. The cabin, which nobody considers authentic, is usually referred to as “traditional.”
That all being said, it is still a lovely site to visit. People still come from miles around. Some myths and legends do no harm. Nobody seems to care whether Abraham Lincoln took his first steps in that cabin. Or not.
Sandburg, Carl – Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years – Harcourt Brace, 1926
Steers, Edward, Jr. – Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President – University Press of Kentucky – 2007