History Beyond His Earliest Recollection: Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home

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SEAC archeologist Timothy Roberts monitoring developments at Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home. Photo Credit: James Ludwig, NPS.

The Boyhood Home Unit at Knob Creek is a relatively recent addition to Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical ParkAfter several years of planning and negotiations, the park is well into a major infrastructural rehabilitation at the Boyhood Home site.Through the process of complying with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, archaeological investigations have revealed that the park holds more memories than just those of the sixteenth President of the United States. 

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Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, and their children Sarah and Abraham spent six years at the Knob Creek Farm.

Located along U.S. Route 31E in LaRue County, Kentucky just south of Athertonville, the 30-acre tract includes the slopes and summits of steep cedar knobs, a fertile alluvial valley or hollow, and a section of Knob Creek, a waterway perhaps better known for its association with the Kentucky bourbon of the same name.

Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, leased this portion of the 228-acre Knob Creek Farm between 1811 and 1816, and lived here in a modest log cabin with his wife Nancy, daughter Sarah, and young Abe. The former president is often quoted as saying, “My earliest recollection is of the Knob Creek place.”

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The location of the original Lincoln cabin at Knob Creek has not been pinpointed.

While the modest log cabin at the site is an authentic depiction of an early nineteenth century frontier home, it was not the actual cabin in which the Lincolns lived. It is, however, constructed from logs that made up part of the home of the Lincolns’ neighbors, the Gollaher family, a son of which, Austin Gollaher, was young Abraham’s closest childhood friend.

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Abraham Lincoln’s close childhood friend Austin Gollaher in his later years.
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The park’s interpretive cabin was made from part of the Gollaher family home.

Gollaher figures prominently in a tale told by interpreters of the time young Abe fell into Knob Creek skipping across stones while the creek was swollen. It was the Gollaher boy who pulled him to safety.

Visit one of

Austin Gollaher’s Find-A-Grave memorial pages!

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Contractors constructing a leach field in a portion of the Lincoln’s corn and pumpkin field. Photo Credit: Tim Roberts. NPS.

Among the other “earliest recollections”, interpreters highlight the tale of a time when after planting the family’s fields with corn and pumpkin seed, Abe and Sarah watched as their hard work was washed away by the flooding of Knob Creek.

But there is more to the Knob Creek Unit’s story than these quaint anecdotes and Honest Abe’s childhood reminiscence.

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For Native Americans in prehistory, gravel bars in Knob Creek were a source of stone for making tools. Photo credit: Tim Roberts, NPS.

The gravels and cobbles that make up much of the bed of Knob Creek were an important raw material resource for prehistoric Native Americans. Archeological surveys of the hollow by SEAC archeologists in 2004 and 2006 identified thousands of stone artifacts including unmodified and retouched flakes, tested cobbles and cores, and a few formal tools, to boot. Limited shovel testing on the top of the knob south of the valley recovered tertiary flakes, interpreted as those associated with the final stages of stone tool production.

point fragment, 2008Wade projectile point, 2008

While monitoring backhoe trenching for the new septic system SEAC archeologists identified evidence of intact prehistoric cultural features buried under a meter of silt that seem to have narrowly avoided floods and shifts in the creek channel.

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Charcoal from this prehistoric fireplace dates to about A.D. 750. Photo credit: Tim Roberts, NPS.
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Charcoal from this feature dates to around 860 B.C. Photo credit: Tim Roberts, NPS.

Charcoal samples from the two different features were submitted for radiocarbon dating with Accelerator Mass Spectrometer at the University of Georgia in Athens and produced uncalibrated dates around A.D. 750 and 860 B.C., respectively.

Unfortunately, excavations elsewhere have found that much of the hollow’s prehistoric deposits have been disturbed or destroyed by floods and a century or more of plowing. Archeologists are currently analyzing the results of their somewhat limited findings that include circular features of heat-altered stone and the single post-hole feature identified to date. None of the cultural material recovered during SEAC’s surveys could be directly associated with the period that the Lincolns occupied the site.

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SEAC Archeologists Timothy Roberts and Jessica Fry map circular features of heat-altered stone found when the parking lot was demolished. Photo credit: Eric Bezemek, NPS.
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The faint stain of a post hole. Photo credit: Tim Roberts, NPS.

The one-room cabin and its compliment are an excellent interpretive tool for discussing the Lincolns’ frontier lifestyle but the tiny building stands in the shadow of the visual centerpiece of the site, the two-story Lincoln Tavern that is to become the park’s Visitor’s Center.

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The Lincoln Tavern was built in 1933 by Hattie and Chester Howard shortly after they constructed the cabin; the same year Prohibition was repealed. The site was intended as both a memorial and a business venture, capitalizing on the increased tourism in the area made possible by the growing abundance of automobiles and the paving of Highway 31E, the Old Cumberland Trail; gas pumps once stood out front to service tourists’ cars. In a way, Lincoln tourism was a family business – Hattie’s brother, James R. Howell owned and operated the Nancy Lincoln Inn, a restaurant and gift shop located at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park.

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Cabins of the Nancy Lincoln Inn at the park’s Birthplace unit around 1940. Photo credit: NPS.

The Lincoln Tavern’s second story was home to the site manager and the downstairs was opened as a dance hall for part of the year and served refreshments including liquor until the sale of intoxicating spirits was prohibited by LaRue County 1942. The building was redeveloped as a museum and gift shop by Hattie and Chester’s youngest son, Fred in the early 1950s. Fred bought the tavern and 200 acres in 1964 and his wife, Mary Brooks Howard took over the management after he died in 1980. Lincoln Boyhood Home, Inc., made up of a group of Howard family members bought the site at auction in 1986. The tavern and cabin were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 as important to the history of LaRue County tourism and a significant monument to Abraham Lincoln. Ten years later, in 1998, the site was donated to the National Park Service.

To learn more about the Lincoln’s in Kentucky and Lincoln Tavern,

have a look at the Historic Structure Report

A phase in the rehabilitation of the Knob Creek unit includes an ethnographic study that will hopefully shed light on several finds and themes well-worthy of public interpretation.

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The remains of rifle found in the 1930s foundation of the old comfort station. Photo credit: NPS.

One of the first interesting discoveries at the site was made during the demolition of the old comfort station behind the tavern. Local legend held that around the time the tavern was built, a murder was committed as part of a family feud. The crime was never solved because no murder weapon could be found. Folks had always heard that they weapon was hidden among the stones of the comfort station’s foundation. Park staff and contractors, alike were still surprised to find the metal hardware of a .22 bolt action rifle nestled in the mortar of the building’s foundation when it was demolished in January!

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The unpaved Nolin-Bardstown Road also known as Old Cumberland Trail is now the paved Highway 31E.

Another local legend mentions a water well that was once
situated in front of the tavern
near the road. It is said to have been used by, among others,enslaved African Americans brought down the Old Cumberland Trail to be sold in markets. While monitoring the removal of the flag pole from what has become the new parking lot, SEAC archeologists identified what may have been part of a pump well.

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Parts of a possible pump well? Photo credit: Tim Roberts, NPS.

Though currently the main interpretive focus of the Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home unit is a few short years of the 16th President’s childhood in the early 19th century, the park boundaries encompass cultural resources from more than a thousand years before to more than a century after the Great Emancipator nearly lost his life in Knob Creek. Such is the story of so many parks: they are specially protected time capsules of the human experience in America to be preserved for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.

Abraham Lincoln is one the most beloved figures in American history and the internet abounds with facts (and fictions) about his cut-short life.

Learn some interesting tidbits about his life on other  WordPress blogs…but don’t believe everything you read on the internet!

Here!

and

Here!

4 comments

  1. I am a volunteer at the Boyhood Home.. I enjoy very much telling visitors some of the history. For over seventy I have with two and 1/2 miles of the park

    • Thank you for your service! Despite being a smaller park unit, ABLI has so much to offer. We hope that the recently completed renovations are drawing even more interested visitors to the Boyhood Home.

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