Traveling to explore Lincoln’s Indiana boyhood

Near twenty years have passed away

Since here I bid farewell

To woods and fields, and scenes of play,

And playmates loved so well….

From “My Childhood Home I See Again,” by Abraham Lincoln, 1846


LINCOLN CITY, Ind. — Abe Lincoln would be gratified to see the place he once called home, which remains largely unchanged from his youth. Is it in Kentucky? Illinois?


When you read about the country’s 16th president, you’ll find frequent references to his “passing through” Indiana. Should 14 years of his life be characterized as “passing through”? I think not. In fact, Lincoln spent his formative years in Indiana, my home state, before moving in 1830 to Illinois, which calls itself the Land of Lincoln.

But Indiana played a big role in the man he would become. Seeking a new life in a place free of slavery and title disputes, Thomas Lincoln, Abe’s father, moved the family north from Kentucky in December 1816 when Abe was a boy of 7 and just as Indiana was becoming the 19th state in the Union.

It was here in southwestern Indiana (now Spencer County) that Abe worked the land with his father and mastered fence making (among other skills), earning him the nickname the Rail-Splitter. He said later that he had achieved his height (6 feet, 4 inches) on the good soil of Indiana.

The National Park Service commemorates the future president’s time here with its Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, three hours south of Indianapolis or about two hours west of Louisville, Ky., and Indiana honors him with neighboring Lincoln State Park.

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

In more than half a dozen visits to Lincoln’s boyhood memorial, I’ve always found it quiet and thus ideal for contemplating a man whose humble beginnings belie the complexity of his character.

The exterior of the visitor center illustrates phases of Lincoln’s life with five limestone sculptures, carved from solid 10-ton blocks from Indiana quarries and depicting his childhood years and onward to his death. When I see those stones, it seems to me that Lincoln is like them: solid, unbreakable, enduring.

The visitor center has a short orientation film (narrated by Leonard Nimoy) about Lincoln’s time in Indiana, and a small museum houses a Thomas Lincoln cabinet — he was a skilled carpenter — hearth stones from a Lincoln cabin and Lincoln-related art work, including an oil representing how mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln may have looked.

She died two years after the Lincolns moved to southern Indiana, felled by what was known as milk sickness, the result of ingesting dairy products from cows that had eaten the white snakeroot plant. She is buried on the grounds not far from the visitor parking area. Oak and hickory trees shade the cemetery. Visitors — I was one — show their respect by leaving pennies at the base of her headstone, which are collected and used to help pay for the park’s upkeep.

North of her grave is the Lincoln Living Historical Farm, a re-creation that depicts a typical farm of Lincoln’s day. A barn, chicken coop and other outbuildings sit near the tiny cabin. The delight is in such details as the marmalade cat dozing on the quilt rack (although Lincoln may have been a dog person — friends recalled that he had a four-legged pal named Honey). Staff members don period clothing for daily demonstrations of pioneer life: cooking over an open fire, gardening, quilt-making, milking cows and more.

The farm is open seven days a week from April to October. You can walk among the buildings at other times, but you might see only chickens and sheep.

Lincoln State Park

The 1,747-acre Lincoln State Park is just across Highway 162 from the boyhood memorial. Its outdoor enticements — swimming, fishing, hiking and camping — are reminiscent of young Abe’s pursuits: Along 10 miles of trails you can walk stride for stride with a future president.

If your explorations take you near the Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church while you’re in the park, you can visit the grave of Abe’s older sister, Sarah Lincoln Grigsby, who died during childbirth in January 1828 at the age of 21. Her stillborn child was buried in her arms.

To help visitors understand the historical context, a stage production of Lincoln’s life, called “A. Lincoln: A Pioneer Tale” is presented in the 1,500-seat amphitheater.

When Abe starts constructing a coffin for his mother, the scene is so heart-wrenching that you may reach for your tissues. But the production, billed as a musical outdoor drama, isn’t all sorrow. There’s singing, there’s dancing and there are boyish pranks, and the stage is large enough to accommodate horses, wagons and small riverboats. Thanks to the roof, the show can go on rain or shine. (The theater is also home to a variety of other shows and special events, from concerts to Shakespeare.)

The theater is a good place to reflect about leadership. Americans embraced Lincoln, a common man, one who knew about hardships and how to overcome them, and made him our president, considered one of our best. His time here surely toughened him, but it also helped to prepare him to govern through one of the most tumultuous periods of U.S. history. Were it not for his Indiana boyhood, who knows how America’s story would have turned out?