April 15, 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. It’s incredible to ponder just how much of an impact Lincoln still has on our country, even more than a century later. While much emphasis is placed on Lincoln’s Presidential story, one of the objectives of For the Love of Lincoln was to relay the history of Lincoln’s early years. We thought it important to highlight Lincoln’s humble beginnings, his formative years, his life on the frontier and the myriad hardships he endured before rising to prominence. By exploring Lincoln’s roots, we get a better understanding of the development of his values and his beliefs that shaped his decisions during his political career.
We designed For the Love of Lincoln: The Journey to follow Lincoln’s life in the Midwest from birthplace to final resting place. Yes, Liz and I also worked beer and bourbon into our journey, but the fact is that the historic sites we visited are fantastic places for young people to learn about one of our nation’s greatest leaders and about a significant part of our nation’s history.
The natural place to start is Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, which is a National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Here children are introduced to the idea of life in a log cabin on the frontier. Start at the enshrined log cabin in the Memorial Building. Then head down to the Visitor Center to get a look at the recreated cabin interior and envision every-day life for the young Lincoln family. It’s a great place to ignite the kids’ imaginations!
Helpful tip: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park contains a second unit, Knob Creek Farm, located approximately ten miles away from the Birthplace Unit. The Lincolns lived at Knob Creek for five years before departing for Indiana. On site now is a replica cabin, construction of which was completed in 2008.
After my initial #DrinkinLincoln recap post, many people commented that they didn’t even know that Lincoln lived in Indiana. The truth is, he spent more years – and the most formative years of his life – in Indiana than in Illinois. Lincoln’s life in Indiana is commemorated at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. Start at the Visitor Center to view the 15-minute orientation video and begin to realize just how special the place is. Straight out the front door of the Visitor Center is a path up to Pioneer Cemetery where Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, is buried. Nancy died there on the farm from milk sickness when Abraham was just nine years old. Continue on the path from the cemetery to the living historical farm. None of the original homestead buildings remain, but the recreated farm depicts typical life on the frontier in the 1820s. The farm is run and maintained by volunteers who put on quite a display for visitors. The volunteers dress in period attire and demonstrate daily activities that would have been performed by the Lincolns, such as wood-working, gardening, farming, food preparation, and, if you’re lucky like I was on my first visit, production of maple syrup.
Helpful tip: Plan your visit to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial around a stay at the magnificent and historic French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. Located approximately one hour northeast of the Boyhood National Memorial, French Lick Resort seamlessly blends history, luxury, and family fun.
As it’s the Land of Lincoln, it’s no surprise that there is an array of Lincoln historic sites in Illinois. Lincoln left Indiana in 1830, at the age of 21, for Illinois and settled in the town of New Salem (about twenty miles northwest of Springfield). It was during his time in New Salem that Lincoln was elected to the state legislature, thereby beginning his political career. Lincoln lived in New Salem until 1837 and during his time there, he suffered several failed attempts at business and, reportedly, even romance. Today, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site is an expansive recreated village with authentic-looking buildings and plenty of open space for the kids and their imaginations to run wild.
In Springfield proper is the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. It’s the actual home in which the Lincolns lived before they moved to the White House. The only access to the home is via a ranger-led tour at designated times. A total of four blocks make up the historic site and the other homes there also have been preserved. Many serve as Park Service offices but walking along the streets that Lincoln and his contemporaries walked is like experiencing a bit of time travel.
Lincoln enthusiasts of all kinds must make it a point to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. I have visited the museum twice within the last year and would not be opposed to subsequent visits. The lifelike and life-size displays are designed to follow Lincoln’s life from his boyhood on that Indiana farm, to the White House, and even to that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. The exhibits provide a number of teaching points and learning opportunities if visiting with children. For example, when I visited with my five-year-old daughter, we came upon a depiction of a slave auction. My daughter knew the term slavery from the books she’d read about Lincoln but not much more. When she saw the figures in the exhibit, the emotion and distress carved into their faces, she latched onto my leg and hip and wouldn’t let go. Her expression turned somber as she intently studied the scene before her. She looked at me and said, “Mommy, is this slavery? Is this what Abraham Lincoln saw in New Orleans?” I told her yes and she said, “Now I know why Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery.” That type of experience is worth the price of admission and more valuable than any lesson taught in school.
Not everything at the Lincoln Presidential Museum is that heavy. To counter the gravity of issues like slavery and assassination, there is a very well-done play area for children called Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic. Children must be supervised and museum staff controls how many children are in the area at a time. There are Lincoln logs; a dollhouse-sized replica of Lincoln’s Springfield home; period costumes for dress-up; and books and other items for all age groups. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a fascinating place; don’t miss it.
The last stop in Springfield is Lincoln’s tomb and memorial at Oak Ridge Cemetery. While not exactly a happy place, it can be a poignant ending to an educational and historical trip. Seeing Lincoln’s final resting place, especially the enormity of the monument, is a testament to just how important Abraham Lincoln was and still is. The story of Lincoln’s legacy then comes full circle.
Helpful tip: You’ll probably want to spend more than one day in Springfield to see all the sites; therefore, you’ll need to book a hotel. My pick for best family hotel in Springfield is Residence Inn by Marriott – Springfield South. I have stayed at the all-suite hotel twice now and I look forward to returning on my next trip to Springfield.