Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Real Lincoln Log Cabin: Fact or Fantasy?

That Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 inside a log cabin on a farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky is an undisputed fact of history. That this log cabin is still in existence, preserved inside a Beaux-Arts structure in Hodgenville, is another story.

The mythos of the Lincoln Log Cabin literally goes back to Abraham Lincoln himself. When running for president in 1860, Lincoln frequently drew on his humble roots, his birth in a log cabin in rural Kentucky, to find common ground with the common man, and to demonstrate his self-made success. He had risen literally from the humblest of beginnings.

After he was elected, interest in this storied log cabin naturally grew. Was it still there in rural Kentucky for anyone to see? Stories from the Civil War suggest that Confederate soldiers moving through the area even went so far as to look for the cabin in order to destroy it.

After the war and Lincoln’s assassination, interest in his birthplace grew even more. It was known that Lincoln’s family had moved to a neighboring farm a few years after his birth, leaving his birth cabin behind, but local residents in the area told cabin-hunters that the original cabin belonging to the Lincoln family had been dismantled by later owners and reused in a much larger home a short distance away.

Subsequently, this dwelling, believed to be built in part from the original cabin, became a sort of shrine for Lincoln enthusiasts in the latter half of the 19th century.

As interest and pilgrimages to the Lincoln farm grew, a New York businessman (of course he was from New York!) named A.W. Dennett came up with the bright idea of making some money off of it. In 1894, he purchased the farm, dismantled the dwelling there, and used what he believed were the original cabin logs to rebuild the cabin itself. How did he know which logs belonged to the original cabin? The answer to that question is anybody’s guess. Presumably Dennett chose the logs that looked the oldest, or perhaps those logs which could, together, be used to construct a cabin. Obviously, any material that was not a log (for instance, a wooden slat) would have been rejected, as would any material that did not meet the appropriate lengths, etc.

As for how he knew what the cabin would have looked like when it was in its original form, that would have been easy enough to determine simply from engineering knowledge about log cabin dimensions in west-central Kentucky in the early 1800’s. This knowledge may also have helped in choosing which logs were original and which were later designs.

Unfortunately for Dennett, the reconstruction of the cabin on the Lincoln farm did not produce the crowds of tourists he had hoped for, so he took the show on the road. Dismantling the cabin, and loading it onto a train, he toured around the country, displaying the cabin at various expositions in major cities throughout the late 1890’s. This proved much more successful for Dennett, and he eventually added a second cabin to the show – one which he claimed had been the birthplace cabin of Jefferson Davis, Lincoln’s presidential counterpart in the Confederacy during the Civil War, and also born in western Kentucky about eight months before Lincoln. Both cabins were assembled and dismantled at the beginning and end of each show, stowed in separate train cars while on the move to ensure that the logs didn’t get mixed.

After four or five years on the road, and with interest in the cabins waning, Dennett hung up his traveling clothes, stuck the cabins in storage, and moved on to bigger and better things. While in storage, the various logs from the two cabins were not separated.

A few years later, around 1906, a historical society decided to try Dennett’s first idea again – to put the cabin in its original place on the original farm, and advertise it as a tourist attraction. They purchased the cabin at auction (Dennett had gone bankrupt) and had it taken out of storage, not realizing that it was now mixed together with the logs from the Davis log cabin. Upon trying to reassemble the cabin, of course, they quickly realized the problem.

Again, how they ultimately decided which logs had belonged to the Lincoln cabin, and which logs had belonged to the Davis cabin, is anyone’s guess. Dimensions and wood type were no doubt taken into consideration.

A memorial building was erected on the Lincoln farm, in the spot where the original cabin had once stood. The cabin’s actual geographic location on the farm was easy to determine by looking at the original plats of the land, drawn up when the Lincoln family purchased it in 1807.

Once the memorial building was complete (Theodore Roosevelt laid its cornerstone in 1909), the cabin was put inside it. Unfortunately, an immediate problem arose. When rebuilt to its original dimensions (that is, the original dimensions used by Dennett), there was not adequate space around it for tourists. That problem was easily overcome by simply chopping off four feet from one side and one foot from the other. What had originally been 16x18 was now 12x17. Thus, the cabin in its present form is narrower than Dennett’s had been, and narrower than it would have been in 1809.

The memorial building, with the smaller cabin inside, was dedicated by William Howard Taft in 1911, and has now been a tourist attraction for nearly a century.

But the vital question still remains: Is the cabin really the same cabin that Lincoln was born in? Numerous assemblies and disassemblies and a trimming of the dimensions aside, is the cabin one sees inside the big stone building in Hodgenville, Kentucky built from the same logs that Lincoln’s original birthplace cabin was built from? Clearly the logs today are not necessarily in the same locations relative to one another as they may have been in Lincoln’s day, but are they at least the same logs? Did Lincoln’s father lean against those logs to take a rest from the noonday sun? Did the infant Lincoln himself crawl the dirt floor beneath and within those logs?

The answer to those questions has been the matter of much debate for quite a long time. With such a sordid history surrounding the origins and maintenance of those logs, it has been difficult, in the past, to do much more than speculate.

Recently, however, historians have moved a bit more closely to the truth. After decades of requests by various researchers, the historical society that maintains the site finally conceded to letting several scientists come in to take core samples from the logs for laboratory study.

The wood in the logs proved to be in remarkably poor condition. For a time, it even appeared that the researchers might not be able to get a viable core sample because of the extreme state of deterioration. But they persevered and managed to get several good samples from two or three different logs.

The samples were put through a litany of laboratory tests, and the results were fairly conclusive: the “Lincoln Log Cabin” needs to be renamed the “Anonymous Log Cabin.”

The tests on these core samples showed that the trees used to make the logs were cut down no earlier than 1848. That’s 40 years too late for Lincoln’s actual birthplace. The age of the trees at the time they were cut down would have made them, at best, small saplings at the time of Lincoln’s birth. The tests did confirm, however, that the logs came from trees native to the area of Kentucky where Lincoln was born. This means, at the very least, that the logs making up the cabin today did come from Dennett’s Lincoln cabin, and not from his Davis cabin. One of two conclusions is apparent: the 19th century locals were wrong when they claimed that Lincoln’s cabin had been used later to build a larger home, or Dennett chose the wrong logs.

Of course, some dissenters, spurred by romantic ideas of the cabin’s originality, might argue that these tests only prove that those specific logs were not original to the cabin. The cores, remember, only came from a few logs, because most of the logs were in such bad shape that they were untestable. Perhaps the cabin is composed of both original and non-original material. That certainly remains a possibility, but the scientific evidence, coupled with what is already known about the sordid history of the cabin itself, make any hope for original Lincoln materials in the Hodgenville cabin remote indeed.

In fact, as a result of these tests, the cabin is now billed not as Lincoln’s actual birthplace, but as a symbol of Lincoln’s humble beginnings, a replica – albeit a very early replica.

And that last phrase is the important part. As a historian with a flair for the romance of history, it is disappointing for me to know that the cabin in Hodgenville is not actually the cabin Lincoln was born in. But even if it is not Lincoln’s own cabin, it is still a very old dwelling, preserved for history in Hodgenville. Built in the late 1840’s, it remains one of the oldest log dwellings in America, even if its current form is different than its original.

Log dwellings, of course, are abundant today throughout historical sites in states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. But most of these structures are relatively modern replicas, built in the 20th century with 20th century technology and 20th century preservation techniques. They were never real log dwellings that real people in the real 19th century built for themselves and lived in.

The Lincoln Log Cabin, however, is just such a dwelling. Even if it wasn’t Lincoln’s family who lived in it, it was somebody’s family who cut the trees down, fashioned the wood, built the structure, and lived in it. And they did so more than 160 years ago, in a time when no one had ever heard of Abraham Lincoln, and slavery was still a thriving business in America.

That makes the dwelling historically important, and romantically significant, even if Lincoln himself never saw it.


Sister Christian said...

So much for those 20 billion field trips I took as a child.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the “lies” parents and authority figures tell…growing up is a painful process of discovering that almost everything you were told is false. And sometimes, it really matters!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a good summary. Long ago when I was 10 years old, my parents and I visited this shrine and even today it holds special signficance for me, even if it is now deemed a replica. It is evocative of a time in our history that is long gone and worthy of our respect in that context.

Scott said...


I totally agree! Thanks for reading and responding.

Anonymous said...

That was an interesting read.

Any chance that Lincoln's cabin is anywhere to find elsewhere in the area? Perhaps he might have lived on another property? Wonder if there are still any old log cabins still standing.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, and that's a good question. I don't know enough about the area to say for sure. It's certainly a possibility.

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