History of the Living Historical Farm

Ask most people who have visited Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial what they remember most of their visit here, nine out of ten would say something about the Living Historical Farm. Let’s face it, for most visitors the farm is Lincoln Boyhood. But that has not always been the case. While it seeks to represent the earliest period of occupation here, the farm is actually the most recent addition to the park. It was not part of the state’s original development plan, which was much more concerned with the creation of a commemorative park, as evidenced by the construction of the two memorial halls and the cabin site memorial. It was not even part of the National Park Service’s initial development of the site, which envisioned the Exhibit Shelter as the primary point for interpreting the Thomas Lincoln farm. In fact, in terms of planning and development, the Lincoln Living Historical Farm was almost an afterthought. The story of its creation is a good illustration of how changing perceptions of our history have shaped the way in which it is interpreted.

Early development of the park was influenced by the traditional commemorative view of history, that is, it was designed to serve as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln and his mother. This was to be a place where visitors could "remember" the early life of a great American. To simply be in this place where Abraham Lincoln grew up was thought to be enough. But by the late 1960s, the general view of history began to change. Larger changes in society, placing more emphasis on the "common" man, began to take place. People were, generally speaking, less satisfied to simply "remember," they wanted to know more about what life was actually like for the average person, and what it was like for "great Americans," like Lincoln, before he became "great." One way in which this new interest manifested itself in the field of interpretation was in the development of the "living history farms." The idea was to create, or re-create, places where the history of typical people could be interpreted.

In 1966, the National Park Service became involved in this effort when it began working with the Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian Institution in a joint venture to establish a nationwide system of farms representing a variety of regions and time periods. NPS Director George Hartzog was an early proponent of the idea and, following a visit to the park in 1968, selected Lincoln Boyhood as one of the sites for such development. It was a popular idea, both with Superintendent Al Banton, who began making plans, and with Congressman Winfield Denton, who helped obtain the necessary appropriations.

At Hartzog’s direction, historian Ed Bearss completed an extensive research report that laid the groundwork for the development of the farm at Lincoln Boyhood. Based on it the location of the buildings, the orchard, the fields, and the kitchen garden were determined.

In February 1968, clearing of the site began. In March, a construction crew of ten men, all local residents, some of whom were skilled in log construction, were hired. Progress on the project was hastened by the decision to use logs from existing structures in Spencer County that would be dismantled, transported to the site, and then reassembled, though not necessarily in their original configuration, as the farm buildings. In all, three structures were used to build the existing cabin, smokehouse, chicken coop, and barn. They were the Reisz barn, from just west of Chrisney; the Bryant house, from near Gentryville; and the Butler house, from between Grandview and Rockport, which was supposed to have been 125 years old.

On March 11, 1968, the footing for the cabin fireplace was begun. An excavation was made, gravel was put down, and heavy stone, some of which had been taken from the rubbish heap from the construction of the new addition to the visitor center, were placed in the bottom. Over the next several weeks, despite some harsh winter weather, the buildings quickly began to take shape. As much as it was possible to do, the work of cutting and shaping and fitting the logs was done using traditional hand tools, including the cutting of the front cabin door opening with a cross-cut saw. By April 26, the construction of the first four structures was complete. In he spring of 1969, the carpenter shop was added and the farm attained the appearance that it has today.

The presence of the buildings, though, did not make the farm "living." That effect was achieved by the addition of interpreters in pioneer clothing who "worked" the farm using historically authentic tools and methods. Early interpretation was intentionally unstructured so as to more closely depict a daily routine of life. That pattern has continued, largely unchanged, until today.

In the years since its creation, the Lincoln Living Historical Farm has become a solidly entrenched part of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. In successfully re-creating for visitors a sense of what life was like on the Indiana frontier of the 1820s, the farm has helped to personalize this great figure of American history and to make him more approachable. In so doing, it has helped make Abraham Lincoln someone we can relate to and understand. That’s what interpretation is, and should be, all about.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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