- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

HODGENVILLE, Ky. — Never mind that young Abe left in obscurity after his family’s frontier land squabbles. Or that years later, voters from his old Kentucky home didn’t support his run for the presidency.

This town now proudly embraces Abraham Lincoln as a native son, though its status as his birthplace hasn’t kept it from being overshadowed by other places more famously associated with the Great Emancipator.

Locals are hoping that will change with a two-year national celebration commemorating the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s 1809 birth in a small cabin at Sinking Spring Farm near what became Hodgenville.

“We hope the world will know that Hodgenville exists. This is where Lincoln came from, and this is our heritage,” says Janice Bowen, one of the area residents preparing to serve as volunteer ambassadors to greet out-of-towners and answer questions.

Volunteers have taken hospitality lessons, though residents take pride in their small-town manners.

A central Kentucky town of about 3,000, Hodgenville was established a couple of years after Lincoln’s family left for Indiana.

The town has been spruced up in preparation for the hoped-for tourists. The smell of fresh paint recently wafted through the quaint Lincoln Museum, where visitors can gaze upon a life-size portrait of Lincoln, dioramas tracing his life and a three-drawer chest crafted by a man who as a childhood friend of Lincoln’s saved the future president from drowning. Outside, a new roundabout leads traffic past a striking Lincoln statue that is the centerpiece of the town square.

“Most people are looking at it as company’s coming,” says Iris LaRue, the Lincoln Museum director.

Lincoln seems omnipresent. His name is attached to a bank, an elementary school and even a consignment shop. A new sculpture portraying a youthful Lincoln will be unveiled downtown on May 31.

It was much different in the 1860 election that catapulted Lincoln into the White House as the 16th president.

He received just a handful of votes from LaRue County, where the Lincoln birthplace is located, an indication that locals didn’t realize he was a native son, says Tommy Turner, the county judge-executive.

The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site features an imposing neoclassical structure made of granite and marble that enshrines a tiny cabin symbolic of the rustic homestead where Lincoln was born.

Two years after his birth, the Lincolns moved a few miles away to Knob Creek Farm, where young Abe formed his earliest memories, but through the years, the Lincoln birthplace has received visits from several successors — Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower.

Carolyn Mather was a schoolgirl when Mr. Eisenhower shook her hand during his visit in 1954. “I didn’t want to wash my hand for a week,” she says.

The birthplace site draws about 200,000 people each year, and officials are expecting “a noticeable bump” in visitations this year amid Lincoln hoopla, says Keith Pruitt, the site’s superintendent. Miss LaRue predicts twice as many visitors this year to the Lincoln Museum, which usually draws about 30,000 a year.

Nearby, Pat Davis has stocked up on Lincoln merchandise at her downtown gift shop. Visitors searching for Lincoln mementos can choose from artwork, music boxes, books, magnets, collectible coins, candles and ornaments.

Miss Davis used to carry talking Lincoln dolls as part of a presidential series, but the Lincoln dolls were retired last year — which she considers an untimely decision.

“I’ve been trying to get in touch with them to let them know you need to get this guy back in,” Miss Davis says.

Jim Erskine, who lives about 20 miles away, opened his family’s gallery and gift store last year in Hodgenville, betting it’s the right spot amid the Lincoln celebrations. “We realized this would be a hub of a lot of unusual activity in the next couple of years,” he says.

Locals say Lincoln’s Kentucky roots are a history lesson not everyone has learned.

Mr. Turner recalls telling someone at an out-of-state convention that he was from Lincoln’s hometown. The man replied, “Where at in Illinois?” Mr. Turner told him Lincoln was born in Kentucky.

“I’m not sure he actually believed me because it’s so ingrained in everyone’s mind that Lincoln is from Illinois,” says Mr. Turner, co-chairman of the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

Lincoln tributes are planned around the country in the next couple of years, but it’s appropriate to start where Lincoln’s life began, says Harold Holzer, a noted Lincoln scholar and co-chairman of the national Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

“You’re standing in the spot where the greatest American life started,” he says, adding that Lincoln remains “the quintessential symbol of the American dream.”

In Spencer County, Ind., the kickoff event will be a Mother’s Day celebration this spring at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, site of the farm where Lincoln lived from age 7 to 21.

Other events include a Civil War-era ball and a pioneer Thanksgiving-style dinner — an acknowledgment that Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation setting aside a day in November as a day of Thanksgiving.

In September, a group will leave from Rockport, Ind., and head down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on a replica flatboat to retrace Lincoln’s 1828 trip to New Orleans. The group will incorporate some modern conveniences — the replica boat will be powered by motors. The travelers plan to stop in about 18 cities in eight states to spread the word about Spencer County’s connection to Lincoln.

Local officials hope the bicentennial will boost interest in Lincoln’s formative years in Indiana. The Lincoln boyood site features a wooded trail, a living-history farm, a memorial at the site where the Lincoln family’s cabin stood and a cemetery where Lincoln’s mother is buried.

“You can walk through the same woods that Lincoln walked through,” says Melissa Miller, executive director of the Spencer County Visitors Bureau.

Illinois — the state most synonymous with Lincoln — also is planning a full array of activities as part of the extended celebration. Kay Smith, coordinator of the state’s Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, predicted a surge in interest in the many Lincoln historic sites in Springfield, which Lincoln called home for nearly a quarter-century, and other places in the state.

Mr. Turner, the LaRue County judge-executive, hopes for renewed interest in Lincoln and his Kentucky roots. Mr. Turner, who has a Lincoln bust in his office, says the birthplace should be a pilgrimage for any president.

“Every president that served since Lincoln wants to be Lincoln, in terms of gaining the stature and for doing the right thing,” he says. “I can’t imagine why anyone who wants to emulate the man would not want to be here to pay respect at his birth site.”

•••

Lincoln Birthplace, 2995 Lincoln Farm Road. Hodgenville, Ky.: go to www.nps.gov/abli or phone 270/358-3137. Open 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Labor Day to Memorial Day; 8 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day. About 45 minutes from Louisville International Airport.


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