Remembering Lincoln’s Birthplace

log cabin

The "Symbolic" Lincoln Log Cabin

By Zach Klitzman

Though Presidents Day started out to honor George Washington’s birthday, it now also serves as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12, 1809.[1] As we celebrate the 202nd anniversary of his birthday today, Americans will no doubt think of the lasting image of Lincoln’s birth: the one-room log cabin in which he was born. In fact, his humble birthplace has become one of the most iconic images from his entire life, appearing on uncirculated coins honoring the bicentennial of his birth in 2009.[2]

So can Lincoln fans see the log cabin today? Sort of. The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, includes what the Park Service calls a “Symbolic” Log Cabin. Just like President Lincoln’s Cottage, this building has a fascinating preservation story. Unlike the Cottage, however, the “cabin” today is far from the real thing in which Lincoln lived.

The Lincolns moved 10 miles away from the Hodgenville farm site just a couple of years after Abe was born. Obviously Lincoln wasn’t famous, so the cabin wasn’t preserved and fell into disrepair. Over 80 years later in 1894, speculator A.W. Dennett bought the farmstead, including a different, two-story log cabin on another part of the property. The next year his agent James Bingham disassembled that cabin and used its logs to “rebuild” Lincoln’s cabin, assuming the logs from the original Lincoln cabin had been used to construct the two-story one.

Dismayed that not many people were willing to come to rural Kentucky to see Lincoln’s birthplace, Dennett eventually broke down Lincoln’s “cabin.” He then traveled throughout the country showing it off, including stops at the Nashville Centennial Exposition in 1897 and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. At one point he paired it with a cabin which allegedly was Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ boyhood home.[3]

However, at one point the logs from the two cabins were intermingled in a single storage space in New York. In 1906, the Lincoln Farm Association reassembled Lincoln’s cabin in Louisville with the pieces found in the storage unit. But by that point any individual log was just as likely to be from Jefferson Davis’ boyhood cabin as Lincoln’s, and more likely to have been from neither. In 1909 the cabin was moved to the Hodgenville site.

To make the site even more impressive, a Greek-style temple more fitting of a bank than a farm was constructed to house the cabin. As President Teddy Roosevelt said on the day the cornerstone to the memorial was laid: “The rude log cabin in which Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, is a symbol of his bonds with the common people, and it has come to mean to them as Americans what the humble stable in Bethlehem means to them as Christians. But just as the whole world’s faithful have sanctified the birthplace of Christ by housing it within an impressive Church of the Nativity, so the American people have ennobled the birthplace of Lincoln by housing it within a marble Temple of Fame.”  There was only one problem with this “marble Temple of Fame”: when the temple was finished in 1911, there wasn’t enough room inside for the visitors to safely walk around the cabin. Yet instead of expanding the building, the architect in charge, John Russell Pope, decided to shrink the cabin. So today, instead of the probably 18×16 cabin in which Lincoln was born, visitors can see a 12×17 “symbolic” version. And that log cabin is almost completely devoid of any of the original wood!

Mr. Klitzman is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Sources:

James Loewen, “Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace Cabin – Built Thirty Years after His Death!” in Lies Across America: What our Historic Sites Get Wrong

Gerald J. Prokopowicz, Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincolm

National Park Service website <http://www.nps.gov/abli/&gt;


[1] Though Washington and Lincoln are the two most famous February-born Presidents, two other Presidents were born during the month: Ronald Reagan on the 6 and William Henry Harrison on the 9. October, however, holds the record for most Presidential births with six.

[2] Lincoln was not the first President to be born in a log cabin; Andrew Jackson was. And William Henry Harrison had campaigned as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate in 1840, even though he was born into wealth.

[3] Davis, ironically, was born only about 125 miles west of Lincoln in Todd County Kentucky.

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