May 28, 2010

Lincoln Legacy

Lincoln legacy
Rockport village will celebrate with rendezvous, July events
AMY MCVAY ABBOTT Correspondent

Thursday, May 20, 2010

ROCKPORT, Ind. — Abraham Lincoln, candidate in the newly formed Republican Party, lost in his boyhood home of Spencer County in both the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections.

The revered American statesman was popular and well-liked when living in Spencer County in his youth. The Lincoln family moved from Kentucky the same year Indiana became a state, 1816, and moved to Illinois 14 years later.

The Lincoln family ties run deep in Spencer County. Charlie Finecy, Diane Unfried and scores of other Spencer County natives share a great pride in their legacy.

As a 13-year-old, Charlie Finecy nurtured an interest in everything Abraham Lincoln. He spent his free time volunteering at the living historical farm at the National Park Service's Lincoln Boyhood Home. At 18, the Eagle Scout was the youngest county historian in the history of Spencer County.

The Spencer County native grew up a mile northeast of the Lincoln national historic site.

Today, Finecy is at the helm of a renewed effort and restoration of the Lincoln Rockport Pioneer Village and Museum, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer. Located at the west end of Rockport's Main Street. The village officially opened May 1 for the season.

"The story of Abraham Lincoln and his family in Southern Indiana is fairly well known," said Finecy. "The Village tells the story of Lincoln's neighbors in Spencer County. When you learn about his neighbors and the communities in which he was raised, you gain a deeper understanding about Lincoln's character and shaping of his values."

Finecy explained that the village grew out of the dream of George Honig.

Honig, a Spencer County artist, began at the age of 14 to push his vision among friends and neighbors.

"George Honig's vision was to make a visual impact upon visitors about how the Spencer County community taught Lincoln and helped forge his greatness in the wilderness of Indiana," Finecy added.

With Honig's drive, donated land, labor from the Works Progress Administration and the support of the Spencer County Historical Society, the village opened in 1935. It celebrates its 75th anniversary this year with several special events.

A historical encampment will take over the village this weekend, Finecy said.

"Hovering around 18 different campsites will be blacksmiths, merchants and settlers all in period dress. Volunteers will demonstrate spinning, sheep shearing, weaving, caning chairs, and other pioneer tasks of Lincoln's time," Finecy said. "Musical vignettes that depict events in Lincoln's life will be presented on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, featuring students from Heritage Hills High School drama and choral classes."

Later this year, the Diamond Jubilee weekend will begin with a July 3 fundraising gala at 6 p.m. Tickets are available now through the village. A special room honoring George Honig is set for dedication that evening. On July 4, a free old-fashioned community ice cream social willl precede the city fireworks display. The Rockport Community Band will play a patriotic concert before the fireworks.

The History

"The Village (opened in 1935) was one of the first living historical attractions in the United States," Finecy said. Williamsburg, Va., began in the late 1920s, and New Salem, Ill., where Lincoln lived as a young man started in 1930. The Nancy Hanks Lincoln State Park, now the site of the Lincoln Boyhood Home, opened in 1930.

Finecy gained experience working at the Col. Wm. Jones State Historic Site near Gentryville, Ind., and the Farmington Mansion in Louisville, Ky.

Col. William Jones was a seminal figure among Lincoln's Indiana neighbors. A storekeeper and state legislator in the Indiana Whig party, Jones reportedly influenced Lincoln toward a life in the law.

Farmington is the home of Joshua Speed, whom Lincoln met in Springfield, and who remained a lifelong friend.

"President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration. Because of the WPA, Spencer County was able to build the Village. The WPA furnished the labor and the funding to support labor, but the materials and artifacts had to be donated," Finecy said. "In the early 1930s there was a very successful fundraising effort locally to get the logs for the cabins as well as items to furnish the cabins."

The fund drive solicited donations of old cabins and logs. Most of the cabins were constructed with fresh logs from the early '30s.

The 4 acres given by the city of Rockport served as the county fairgrounds for many years. A detailed miniature of the fairground building is now displayed in the Village museum. Finecy said a few visitors remember the iconic white building and stables "where they showed their 4-H projects."

Tickets on opening day cost ten cents a person.

The collection:

The museum features numerous mementos and newspaper clippings about the opening day.

"Though the Village opened at the height of the Great Depression, there was major community support for years and years," Finecy said.

In 1951, citizens and the Spencer County Historical Society wanted historic relics and artifacts housed in the courthouse moved closer to the village.

The all-volunteer group built the present museum building, which was advertised as fireproof.

Community support waxed and waned over the next 55 years until formation of a new group, the Friends of the Rockport Lincoln Pioneer Village.

In the fall of 2009, with the nudging of the new group, the city of Rockport extended a five-year financial support plan, including funds for professional staff and marketing activities. Diane Unfried, post master of the U.S. Post Office at Lynnville, serves as president of the 12-member friends group.

"Our goal is to help preserve our history, put on events, assist the museum and the village," said Unfried, whose brother George Meese, also serves on the friends group. Like many associated with the village, Unfried and her brother have a direct tie to a Lincoln neighbor. They are descendants of Josiah and Elizabeth Crawford, who were close friends of the Lincolns.

A hutch made by Thomas Lincoln for the Crawfords is a focal point of the museum artifacts. As was the custom of the time, the initials "E.C." are carved in large letters on the front left cabinet. Much of the original cabinet is intact, although the right front panel is missing. Most likely, it featured the initials of Josiah Crawford.

There are 14 log cabins in the village, Finecy said, some of which are small and simple and others of which are grandiose. For example, there is a reproduction of the Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church, where the Lincoln family attended. Finecy explained that "Lincoln wasn't much for formalized religion and never joined a church in his lifetime, but attended there as a young man. Lincoln was a sexton for the church, and we have a document for Sunday school supplies with his signature on it."

The Azel Dorsey School from the Lincoln era "kept a school" in a time with no public schools. Those who could afford the tuition, including Thomas Lincoln, sent their children to a private school. Abraham and Sarah both attended school at the insistence of their stepmother, Sarah "Sally" Bush Lincoln, according to Finecy.

One of the remaining 12 buildings is a Hollywood movie set, built in the 1950s for "The Kentuckians" starring Burt Lancaster, said Finecy. "Many local residents served as extras in the picture, and the village decided to keep the building up as it fit in with the period style.

The future

"My brother and I share a goal to see the village flourish and become a great tourist attraction. We also want to see the Crawford cabin restored," said Unfried.

Upon recommendation of the Friends group, Finecy started as the executive director this spring.

"I am very proud of the city council for stepping up to the plate and making sure that our shared heritage is retained and prospers," he said. Funds allow for advertising and promotion, and Finecy is developing a new Web site.

The village now has a Facebook page.

On May 1, the village opened for daily visits. Volunteers Gay Ann Harney and Nancy Kaiser revamped museum displays to highlight Spencer County history, including the key to the courthouse from Lincoln's time.

As the first paid professional staff member, Finecy realizes the village is in transition. He shared a Lincoln quote with the Friends at an early meeting, "As our case is new, we must think and act anew." The future for the Lincoln Pioneer Village & Museum, founded on the past, is bright

Finecy added, "If you visited years ago, you need to come back. We've changed!"

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