August 13, 2010

Abe's Salad Days

This essay was published in the Columbia City (Indiana) Post and Mail on Thursday, August 12, 2010.

What did he see, smell, and touch as he walked among the fields and forests of southern Indiana almost two hundred years ago?

On a warm July morning, did he stop to gaze at the fields of sunflowers? Did he see the newly tasseled corn, standing proud, and growing so fast in the moist heat you can almost hear it? After dusk on a summer evening, did he hear the tree frogs croaking their happy tunes along the swampy banks of the Ohio?

Abraham Lincoln lived in Indiana from 1816 to 1830. His father, Thomas, brought the family from Kentucky during Abe's eighth year. That same year Indiana gained statehood.

While I did not grow up in southern Indiana, I am intrigued by how much Indiana changed Lincoln and by how much Lincoln changed Indiana.

Lincoln's own words from an unfinished 1859 autobiography describe his time in the Hoosier State, "We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in describing his move to Indiana in 1816. His father “removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods.

"There I grew up. There were some schools, so called; but no qualification ever required of a teacher, beyond "readin, writin, and cipherin, to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all. I have not been to school since.

"The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in a draft autobiography in 1859. “I was raised to farm work, which I continued till I was twenty two.”

In Mrs. Thompson’s fourth grade class at South Whitley Elementary School, I studied Indiana History and Lincoln’s Indiana boyhood with my classmates.

Now as a sales representative, I drive through and over the same hills on which our Sixteenth President lived. Until recently, I took Indiana's role in his life for granted until I wrote a story about the Lincoln Pioneer Village in Rockport for a local newspaper.

Rockport is the county seat of Spencer County and recently revitalized replica cabins and an interesting museum.

In the interview process, I met someone related to the individual who gave Lincoln his Weems Life of Washington, a fact every Hoosier schoolchild learns in required fourth grade Indiana history. I saw a cabinet that Thomas Lincoln made, and one that Abe reportedly made.

One of the cabins at the Village belonged to the Gentrys, of Gentryville fame. According to the Lincoln Rockport Village web site, "James Gentry, a neighbor of the Lincolns, was a rich land owner who employed Abe on his farm. In 1828, James Gentry hired Lincoln to go with his son, Allen, on a flatboat to New Orleans. The landing, from which young Lincoln and Gentry departed at Rockport, is preserved as a memorial at the foot of Clark Street. This log house is furnished with articles from the Gentry family, many of which are over 150 years old."

While I have visited the Lincoln Boyhood Home National Park many times, I did not fully realize what an education Lincoln gained from his Indiana tenure. Not much for formalized religion, records show that he served as purchasing agent for a local church, buying Sunday school supplies. He walked to Boonville, in neighboring Warrick County, to study with attorney John Brackenridge. A bust by famed Indiana sculptor George Honig sits on the Warrick County Courthouse grounds, inscribed, “Where Lincoln learned the law.”

Of all the Indiana Lincoln stories, what intrigues me the most is what happened to Lincoln after he launched a flatboat from a bluff at Rockport in September 1828? Hauling produce to New Orleans, Lincoln and his Hoosier companion took the Ohio downstream to meet the Mississippi.

Imagine the sights along the two wide rivers that Lincoln and his companion saw, probably similar to those described in the works of Mark Twain.

In New Orleans, Lincoln got his first look at slavery. He saw a family split during a slave auction, a memory that forever made an impression on the young man.
I see the Ohio River every day and I have lived within several miles of this historic waterway for more than twenty years.

Now as I ponder the footsteps and river trips of this gentle giant Abraham Lincoln in Indiana, I wonder what this nineteen-year-old thought and held in his heart on his first big adventure into the world.

Surely, these thoughts changed the world.