Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
Administrative History
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Jurisdiction over the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace was transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior in August 1933. The move was welcomed by many influential local people. Malcolm Bayley, associate editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, which had always taken an active interest in the affairs of the park, wrote in 1931 to the Director of the National Park Service pledging publicity support for the transfer. "Naturally we feel here that the move would be helpful, especially since Mammoth Cave [50 miles from Hodgenville] will also be a Park Service ward." [1]

Physical conditions at the Park had improved greatly since the War Department began its improvement program in 1929. But the taste in which such improvements were executed and the gradual encroachment of commercial establishments spoiled, in the view of Park Service personnel and some visitors, the natural simplicity of the area. A letter from a Dayton, Ohio, citizen received the marginal endorsement of the Director of the Service, Horace M. Albright. D. B. Kneisley had visited the Farm in 1918:

[I was] pleasantly surprised at the natural condition of the Farm, totally void of all artificial adornment . . . a humble tribute to a great pioneer and a monument in the wilderness.

I returned to the farm two years ago to find the entire place destroyed and commercialized. Tourist cabins, curio shacks, broad expanses of hard cement, cemented spring, shrubbery planted in every corner de-naturalized . . . by the government which speaks of CONSERVATION with every session of Congress. [2]

An inspection by the National Park Service in February 1934 resulted in many of the same conclusions. The Nancy Lincoln Inn, although offering for sale a tasteful selection of hand crafted souvenirs, was located "in a rather unfortunate position so far as the monument is concerned." It faced the Memorial and was not adequately concealed by the sparse group of trees on the park boundary.

The spring, in what was once a beautiful natural setting, had been transformed into a "walled-in artificial place approached by steps walled in on each side with a high retaining wall and too much masonry." The pavilion was now useless, for picnicking had been discontinued on park grounds. These facilities were provided by the Nancy Lincoln Inn. A development plan, it was concluded, was needed "so as to avoid additional mistakes in the location of buildings." [3] The Director of the National Park Service concurred: "The whole Abraham Lincoln Birthplace area has been badly handled from a landscape standpoint and there is a great deal to do to bring it back to the ideal although in some directions steps have been taken that can never be remedied." [4]

Custodian John Cissell was given full responsibility in handling matters and problems at the park as directed by the Department of the Interior. In response to inquiries from the National Park Service, Cissell returned Commissioner R. L. Jones' oath of office as "I have not seen or heard from Mr. Jones for three years or longer." [5]

Funds authorized for expenditure at the park during Fiscal Year 1934 amounted to $4,960. The same amount was laid out for 1935. No construction was programmed for physical improvements. These items were to be funded separately under the Public Works Administration. [6]

The PWA, in Federal Project No. 412, provided $900 to be used between November 1934 and January 1935 for repairs to the Memorial Building. F. P. No. 414 (March-June 1935) expended $9,000 for the planting of trees, and F. P. No. 413 provided $2,250 for the improvement of park grounds. No major physical developments were planned or executed by the PWA. [7]

In 1933 Lucien Beckner was appointed research historian at the park under the CWA. He was assigned "to reconstruct the neighborhood of Lincoln's birth during the decades from 1800 to 1820, so as to give a background for any picture of the little boy, Abe, that may be drawn or conceived." The project had to be terminated, however, for lack of funds. [8]

Several travel journals, as well as park visitors, had commented on the shabby main entrance to the park. A metal-and-wire gate hung between two low granite pillars and what appeared to be a hand-lettered sign announcing "ENTRANCE LINCOLN'S BIRTHPLACE" stood among the unkempt vegetation. [9] Members of the Hodgenville Rotary Club wrote to National Park Service Director Arno Cammerer expressing their desire to help improve the entrance to the park. The owners of the Nancy Lincoln Inn also offered property to the Government for the same purpose. [10]

It was decided that an accurate and complete boundary or contour survey of the present Government-controlled area would be in order. The War Department apparently had obtained the original deeds and other papers in lieu of an abstract of title upon the acceptance of the farm in 1916. [11]

It was becoming increasingly apparent that much in the way of background research and authentication would be necessary to make the park the source of knowledge and inspiration its founders had intended.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the park on June 14, 1936, he found the scene unchanged from the condition it had been in at the transfer from the War Department. He was greeted by Custodian John Cissell, Rep. E. W. Creal and a cheering crowd estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 people. [12]

Administrative procedures also remained as they had been under the War Department. All the records of park business were kept in the Washington office. There was no clerk; Mrs. Cissell did part-time typing and filing with no pay. The Superintendent's son hired as a laborer, acted in the position of guard and ranger, and a room in Superintendent Cissell's private residence served as the park office. [13]

A visit by Historian Roy Appleman of the National Park Service in March 1938 pointed up many irregularities of interpretation and presentation of historical material at the Birthplace. A section of the old flag-pole that had been used by Dennett and Bigham to mark the site of the cabin after its removal from the farm had somehow been incorporated in the cabin exhibit and remained, imbedded in the concrete floor in the center of the cabin. The purpose of the five-feet length of flag-pole had been the object of considerable speculation on the part of visitors. Appleman recommended that it be removed at once, along with the concrete on the cabin floor. An earth floor, certainly more appropriate to the exhibit, would not be difficult to maintain, as the cabin was permanently indoors.

The door and window frames on the cabin were of sawed lumber with large machine-made nails. These were replaced by period fittings of hewed lumber and peg fastenings constructed by Superintendent Cissell. The problem of historical accuracy in the construction of the cabin was a persistent one. When the Memorial was built, what were believed to have been the "original dimensions" of the cabin were cut down to allow a certain space between the cabin and the walls of the Memorial. Accordingly, some of the logs were rudely sawed off, giving the cabin a decidedly unauthentic appearance. Likewise, many of the logs were missing or rotten and had to be replaced by logs of a more recent vintage.

Little or no attempt was made at the final reconstruction of the cabin in 1909 [see Plate 6] to notch or hew the logs as they would have appeared in a cabin built with hand-tools on the Kentucky frontier in 1809. Because of the careless notching and fitting of the logs, unusually large gaps between logs in the walls had to be filled in with a clay daub [see plate 5].

Appleman's report concluded: "This is the grossest example of mistreatment of an historic structure that has ever come to my attention. It is apparent that a problem exists relative to the representations made to the public concerning this building." [14]

An attempt was made to use part of the $9,000 of interest accumulated in the endowment fund toward the completion of a basic historical study long overdue at the park. Unfortunately, it was discovered that under the conditions of the deed of conveyance, those funds could not be used for anything except physical maintenance and improvement. [15]

On the 130th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, in February 1939, the National Park Service released a statement for the press, describing the park and citing the loyal service of Superintendent Cissell. In preparation of this release, the Director was advised that "an effort has been made to avoid controversial statements relating to the Lincoln cabin . . . for reasons of policy (ie: the inheritance of parks and problems from other agencies) I believe some of its inferences to be . . . timely." [16]

The future direction of interpretive programs at Lincoln's Birthplace was becoming a matter of importance. The National Park Service had depended, for much of its information about the birthplace on the research and opinions of Dr. Louis Warren, who published for the Lincoln Life Foundation a monthly newsletter known as Lincoln Lore. In May 1939, Historian Appleman visited the park with Dr. Warren in order to discuss future development programs.

The ancient white oak had received considerable tree surgery in the past. Appleman recommended that five acres around this historic tree be acquired in order to "insure adequate privilege of taking measures needed from time to time to extend the life" of the tree.

Four marble panels with inscriptions about Lincoln's parents and poems in tribute to his life had been erected inside the Memorial Building by the Lincoln Farm Association. Two of these panels contained some legendary and entirely fictional information about the lives and origins of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. Their removal and replacement with corrected texts was recommended for an early date.

Appleman regretted the over-formal development of the grounds and the unfortunate placement of "too many flagstone and concrete walks, courts, and unnecessary and undesirable buildings." The pavilion was pretentious and largely useless and should be removed.

Interpretation, as exemplified by the treatment of the cabin, the main exhibit, most urgently merited the attention of Park Service personnel. Dr. Warren stated at that time that he thought "the present cabin displayed in the Memorial Building is genuine and authentic." Appleman felt, however, that the subject was still open to research and re-examination by the National Park Service. Neither the War Department nor the Lincoln Farm Association, he observed, had ever established the identity of the land (much less the cabin) through the use of land records and other such documents:

The Park Service has never done it, and so far as a documentary basis establishing the authenticity of the site is concerned, none exists in government files to the best of my knowledge. The area was inherited by the National Park Service. Its antecedents to some extent are based on tradition.

Photocopying of the land records in the Larue County Court house was done by Melvin Weig of Morristown National Historical Park in preparation for further study.

Historical markers at various points of interest were recommended, and a small museum to be set up on Park grounds, perhaps with a room for administrative purposes. An additional 348 acres of the original Thomas Lincoln Nolin Creek Farm was recommended for purchase. It was estimated that this would not cost over $15,000. [17]

Superintendent Cissell had almost complete autonomy over the direction of interpretation at the Park. His duties in this line consisted of: "The usual routine of service . . . rendered to the visiting public, lecture information, questions answered regarding the Lincoln family, the cabin, and the neighboring acres, and Lincoln's boyhood days while in Kentucky."As there was no handbook and the National Park Service distributed only a one-sheet informational bulletin on the park, Superintendent Cissell and his assistants had to rely upon their own resources. Those resources, in March 1940, were basically "stories and legions [sic] of the Lincoln family as has been handed down to me by the old settlers." [18] The Regional Director was advised that Superintendent Cissell "has limitations" and what he said in the future should be reviewed and prescribed by an historian. [19]

On August 18, 1938, a bronze plaque of the Gettysburg Address was placed on the interior wall of the Memorial Building just to the left of the entrance door. It was donated by the Women's Relief Corps of Seattle. This was a slight departure from Park Service policy, as it was generally agreed that only material referring to Lincoln's boyhood or parentage would be appropriate at the Birthplace. The plaque was removed recently when the interior of the building was painted and has not been replaced.

In February 1937, a bill had been introduced in the House by Rep. Rene Louis de Rouen of Louisiana to change the designation of the Abraham Lincoln National Park to the Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park. This move, it was explained in a letter from Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to Rep. William Bankhead was proposed in order to

describe more accurately the type of area preserved, bringing [it] in line with the policy that has developed over a period of years . . . . Obviously, these areas are not "national parks" in the same sense as Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and others. [20]

On August 11, 1939, the measure was approved by President Franklin Roosevelt in the form of S. 2046.

The park having been placed in the historical category, more background research was planned to make up some of the glaring deficiencies in interpretation. It was suggested that an Historical Aide be hired with the $1,000 yearly income from the trust fund. He would help in the preparation of literature and the handling of visitors. Historian Paul Satterfield was appointed to prepare an historical handbook on the area. Little work was done, however, for Satterfield was transferred to Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1944 as part of a reduction of labor caused by wartime conditions.

Part of the endowment fund bonds, invested in the City of Louisville, came due in 1941. The redeemed value of $2,000 was rein vested in 2 1/2 per cent United States Treasury Bonds of 1967-1972. [21] In 1944, $15,000 of the trust fund was re-invested in 2 1/2 per cent and 2 3/4 per cent United States Treasury Bonds.

The two incorrect tablets on the interior walls of the Memorial Building were temporarily covered with plaster and paint in February 1941. The "old Creal place" was demolished and removed from the site. The grounds where the house had stood were graded and seeded. Some members of a CCC camp located at Mammoth Cave worked on the Boundary Oak and split 2,000 fence rails donated by Mammoth Cave. [22]

July 1940 was the greatest travel month in the history of the park. Registering guests numbered 30,125 of whom 6,448 were from Kentucky. On the Fourth of July alone, 3,615 persons registered at the Park. [23] In 1942, the Memorial Building was kept open from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the winter. Copies of a 16-page booklet on the area prepared by the National Park Service were available for sale. By the spring of 1942 there was a sharp drop in visitation due to World War II gas and tire rationing. [24]

As of July 1942, supervision of Abraham Lincoln National Park was placed in the hands of the Superintendent of Mammoth Cave. Since the two areas were only 50 miles apart, it was felt that Mammoth Cave, with its larger staff and more varied resources, could help Superintendent Cissell with many problems in the administration of the birthplace. [25]

A study was made in 1944 toward the purchase of 5 1/4 acres around the Boundary Oak. It was discovered that a documented report on the chain of title and the boundaries of the Lincoln Nolin Creek Farm was essential. Photographic copies of key documentary evidence would be necessary to make sure that the tract was really a part of Thomas Lincoln's farm. [26]

Not a great deal was accomplished at the Park during the years from 1940 to 1945. World War II occupied the minds of Congress and the budget planners. A reduction of labor in 1944 reduced the park staff by two laborers. Travel showed a 72 per cent decrease over the previous year. Many of those who did visit were servicemen from nearby Fort Knox. [27]

Almost immediately after the war was over, however, efforts were again exerted to purchase the 5 1/4 acres for the protection of the Boundary Oak, and to research the title and authenticity of the birthplace farm and cabin. Negotiations for the purchase of the property were begun with the owners, James Howell and W. L. Ferrill, in January 1945. "This six-acre tract," wrote the Acting Director of the Park Service to the Secretary of the Interior, "adjoins the park on the southwest and serves as a watershed, and in addition will give us complete ownership of the land surrounding the famous white oak." [28] The use of $90 from the trust fund for this purpose was approved by the Comtroller General on January 13, 1945. The deed, dated June 15, 1945, gave the title to the Department of the Interior, but the land did not become part of the Park until so designated by Act of Congress in 1949.

Historian Benjamin Davis was transferred in January 1947, from Mammoth Cave to the Birthplace as Historical Aide. His first duty was to examine and direct the interpretive program at the park. The free folder distributed in 1947, he felt, confused the visitor with the depiction of an artist's conception of the cabin with larger, round poles, pane glass windows, and a chimney extending above the roof. The interpretive procedure, as it then stood, tended to give more information than interpretation.

There had been a 272 per cent increase in visitation in 1946 over the previous year. It was urgent that careful, detailed research be done toward an accurate and truly interpretive presentation of the farm and its exhibits. [29]

In 1948 Davis prepared a "Report on the original Thomas Lincoln Nolin Creek Farm, Based on Court Records." That June he also completed the collection of documents necessary to trace the chain of title from the Commonwealth of Virginia through ownership by Thomas Lincoln. "A Report on the Abraham Lincoln Traditional Birthplace Cabin" was also submitted. Roy Hays, an insurance investigator, had prepared for publication in the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly an article entitled, "Is the Lincoln Birthplace Cabin Authentic?" The National Park Service, to whom the editors of the Quarterly had sent a copy of the manuscript, set Davis to work on the evidence submitted by Hays.

When, in October 1948, the Hays article appeared in print, a storm of news releases and publicity washed over the Birthplace and the Park Service. The actions taken by the Park Service in response to this affair will be discussed in Chapter VII.

In July 1948, Richard Lloyd Jones and his wife visited the Park and invited Davis and Superintendent Taylor Hoskins of Mammoth Cave to visit him in Tulsa in the fall to discuss the activities of the Lincoln Farm Association. In August, with the passing of Charles Evans Hughes, Jones remained the only living member of the original Association. [30]

Effective January 1, 1949, Superintendent John Cissell retired after having been connected with the Lincoln Farm for 42 years. [31] Historical Aide Davis became Acting Superintendent until June 1949, when J. Clarence Lyon, Formerly Purchasing Clerk at Mammoth Cave, was appointed Superintendent. Superintendent Lyon died suddenly on June 27, after only four weeks on duty. Davis served as Acting Superintendent until March 1950, when Ernest L. Wright, Jr., was appointed Superintendent.

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Last Updated: 11-Feb-2003