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Lincoln's tourism connection

Dr. Anton Anderssen  Feb 06, 2009

In a few days, we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. One place in particular, Spencer County, Indiana, is inextricably tied to the greatest US president, and 2009 will be an exceptional year to explore this historical territory.

I was introduced to Spencer County through Paula Werne, director of public relations at Holiday World & Splashin' Safari. Holiday World is a regional theme park formerly known as Santa Claus Land. When it opened in 1946, it was the first of its kind in America. It began as a free attraction for families visiting Lincoln’s boyhood home landmarks, and grew into a respectable theme park celebrating Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July with rides, live entertainment, games and attractions.

Paula Werne greeted us with big hugs and a full agenda of sites to visit in Spencer County. I wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome from a corporate official, but it’s part of their company culture – Holiday World won first place in the “Friendliest Park Staff” category for the past ten years in a row, as bestowed by the Golden Ticket Awards Association, and published in Amusement Today magazine.

She invited my family into the gates of Holiday World and gave us free reign. The grounds were spotless. For the past eight years it was voted “The Cleanest Park in America,” despite the fact they give unlimited, free soda pop in paper cups all day long at the concession stands. If that weren’t generous enough, they also give free parking, free sunscreen, and free use of inner tubes in the water park.

Paula told me “Holiday World may be the only theme park in the world with Abraham Lincoln’s signature on permanent display,” as she led me to a museum inside the complex. “The Lincoln Collection contains a wide variety of artifacts from Abraham Lincoln’s life, particularly from the 14 years he spent growing up just a few miles away from here.”

Paula continued, “The 17 display cases chronologically detail specifics themes from President Lincoln’s life. From books and tools to letters and clothing, this exhibit provides visitors with views of Lincoln from his pioneer boyhood to his final years as the nation’s 16th president.”

The Lincoln classroom exhibit includes papers written by him while a young student, and many personal objects owned by his family.

“The collection is also designed to be an educational tool for school groups,” Paula said, “and we are making 2009 the best year yet for families to come and learn about the beloved president.”

Paula is also on the board of directors of the Lincoln Boyhood Drama Association, which will open a new Lincoln drama in June, 2009. On our visit to Spencer County, “Young Abe Lincoln,” a musical outdoor drama, was on stage at The Lincoln State Park Amphitheatre. We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle, which was somewhat an Indiana version of “Oklahoma”; but the new drama celebrating the nation's bicentennial of Lincoln's birth promises to be so much more.

The president of the Lincoln Boyhood Drama Association is Will Koch, patriarch of the family that owns Holiday World.

"Lincoln's character was forged right here in Southern Indiana," he said. "We want the new play to leave the audience with the understanding that the boy who lived here from ages 7 to 21 became such a remarkable president in large part due to what he experienced and learned here."

“So many of his excruciating decisions were influenced by his boyhood,” Paula said. “The playwright shows Lincoln in his presidential years, reflecting back upon his boyhood.”

After a nation-wide search, the Drama Association chose Dr. Ken Jones, the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Chair in Theatre at Northern Kentucky University, to write the new play. Dr. Jones graduated from the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University in Playwriting.

“Paula was on the play-writing committee who picked me,” said Dr. Jones. “She was the first person I met in Spencer County. When I met her, I knew I wanted to do this play - she was so nice and warm and kind. You can tell Lincoln grew up in this area, because it shows in the local peoples’ spirit.”

Dr. Jones lives three and a half hours away from Lincoln City, Indiana, but for the past year has been coming to research the area every other week, visiting all the sites known to have been frequented by the young Abraham Lincoln.

“Throughout the play, we hear traditional slave and gospel music. A choir accompanies the play as the drama unfolds. There will also be a symphonic score punctuating moments in the play,” said Dr. Jones. “There will be a lot of multi-media technology. Projected onto a screen, on the stage below Lincoln, the audience will see images of the Civil War, the unspoiled countryside of Indiana, log cabins, and poignant moments, like reflections from his mother’s death. The multi-media presentation ties in to the influences upon the president that shaped America as we know it.”

“This play is going to be very different from most outdoor drama; it’s The Lion King meets Lincoln,” said Dr. Jones, who spent many years working in creative services for Disney. “Our staging is highly innovative with projections and lasers, and content interspersed with history. This is an exciting way to present outdoor dramas.”
There are sad, moving, emotional scenes about his mother’s death. Dr. Jones created a scene where Lincoln meets a slave on the docks. Although Indiana was a free state at the time, he would have seen slaves in Kentucky, which lay just beyond the Ohio River, over which Lincoln traversed as a ferry operator.

“Another moment in second act depicts President Lincoln in a discussion with General Grant. On the screen are flashbacks to his youth. Lincoln would go to the blacksmith, where older men were gathered to talk. One particular mentor was Colonel William Jones. This is where Lincoln learned his politics,” said Dr. Jones, “and here, juxtaposed between General Grant and Colonel Jones, the audience sees how the teen learned a lot of what he did from the people in the area.”

Melissa Miller is the executive director of the Spencer County Visitors’ Bureau. She said, “In 2009, the DNR will conduct an archaeological dig at The Colonel Jones Home State Historic Site, searching for artifacts from the Lincoln era. This carefully restored 1834 Federal-design home of the merchant employer of Abraham Lincoln offers a unique look at the early development of Indiana and the life of Colonel William Jones, who was also a politician.”

Lincoln Pioneer Village is a collection of replica log cabins, public buildings, schools, and churches reconstructed as they once stood in Lincoln’s days in Spencer County. The village houses several authentic artifacts, such as a cabinet built by Thomas Lincoln, Abraham's father, and a dress owned by Sarah Grigsby, Lincoln’s sister.

Gay Ann Harney, spokeswoman for the Village, said period costumed interpreters demonstrate era trade techniques, and May 16-17, a special 1816-1830 Rendezvous will feature a Young Abe contest, Lincoln & Grigsby wedding reenactment, encampments, muzzle loading and tomahawk throwing demonstrations.

Little Pigeon Baptist Church was founded on June 8, 1816, the year that Thomas Lincoln and his family moved up from Kentucky and settled on Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana Territory. This is where the Lincoln family attended services. Thomas Lincoln and his son, Abraham, assisted in building it. Records indicate Lincoln’s father, stepmother, and sister were active members of this fundamentalist church. Abraham, however, did not become a member. Therein lies a key factor to understanding Lincoln’s core beliefs. When it came to Lincoln’s convictions of right or wrong, church dogma met ignominious defeat.

Dr. Mark A. Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College, in his book “A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada,” writes “It is probable that Lincoln was turned against organized Christianity by his experiences as a young man in New Salem, Illinois, where excessive emotion and bitter sectarian quarrels marked yearly camp meetings and the ministry of traveling preachers.”

Lincoln was not a follower of sectarianism. He was a uniter, not a divider.
Quoted by Joseph Lewis in “Lincoln the Freethinker,” the president said, “The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma.”

Lincoln had problems with some parochial Christian practices - there are numerous Biblical passages that implicitly or explicitly endorse slavery, such as Exodus 21:20–21. If Lincoln was bi or gay, as many scholars argue, he could have easily abhorred the fundamentalists’ positions of hatred toward same-sex relationships. Bigoted adherence to a factional viewpoint really turned him off.

Lincoln’s sexuality is a topic of debate. Dr. Andrew Sullivan, who earned a degree in history at Oxford University, and a PhD in government at Harvard University wrote, “Certainly if you're looking for clear evidence of sexual relationships between men in Lincoln's time in the official historical record, you'll come to the conclusion that no one was gay in the nineteenth century. But of course, many were.”

In the book “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,” C.A. Tripp, PhD, a psychologist, therapist and sex researcher paints a picture of Abraham Lincoln as a tortured and closeted homosexual, whose deep friendships with men like Joshua Speed and Captain David Derickson were both homoerotic and homosexual.

Journalist Cecil Adams has been “fighting ignorance since 1973” (which is his column's motto); he states “Lincoln slept with a man for years and seems to have had little use for women--you can see where people nowadays might jump to conclusions. Considering how the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings thing turned out, I wouldn't be too quick to say they’re wrong.”

Captain David Derickson was Lincoln's companion between September 1862 and April 1863. They shared a bed during the absences of Lincoln's wife. Elizabeth Woodbury Fox, the wife of Lincoln's naval aide, wrote in her diary for November 16, 1862, “Tish says, 'Oh, there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the president, drives with him, and when Mrs. L is not home, sleeps with him.”

Now, I can almost buy the explanation that Lincoln slept in the same bed with Joshua Fry Speed for four years due to poverty and the need to keep warm (even on those 90 degree summer nights). But after Lincoln became president, he didn’t need to bed down with Captain Derickson while the missus was away due to either poverty or lack of coal in the White House. Inside the 132-room mansion, he couldn't find anywhere else to sleep?

The L.A. Weekly published a bawdy poem about gay marriage that Lincoln wrote as an adolescent in Indiana. One of the men in his poem, Billy, was noted for a having a “low crotch” [because the object inside his pants was so ample]. Lincoln didn’t advertise his private life. Like Bill Clinton, southern Baptists are pressured by their church to obfuscate details about their sexual escapades.

My father, like Lincoln’s father, is a hard-core fundamentalist southern Baptist. The two heinous “sins” that make Baptists cringe are homosexuality and alcohol. Of course, there’s the official version, and then the reality how people live their lives. Records from the early 1800s, receipts and contracts from the Little Pigeon Baptist Church, include entries naming Thomas Lincoln’s family. The church members contracted with masons for a new chimney, offering bartered goods such as whiskey for payment to the builders. What was whiskey doing in a Baptist’s log cabin? We may never know. What happens in the log cabin stays in the log cabin.

Lincoln-era abodes were typically simple and unadorned. Melissa Miller remarked why she really likes the Colonel Jones Home. “It’s an actual home you can walk through, with a series of nature trails. It represents what life was like at the time of Lincoln, giving you insight into how the upper class lived. They did a great job restoring the home to its original condition. In the kitchen, you see how they cooked over the fireplace. At that time, it would have been considered a mansion, but by our standards, we wouldn’t call it upper-class living.”

Retired education professor Walter Beumel, PhD, is curator of the Legendary Lincoln Cabin, located on the premises of Buffalo Run Farm, located one mile from Lincoln’s homestead. Dr. Beumel said, “Abraham Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks once held deed to part of what is now the buffalo farm. Dennis Hanks lived in the Thomas Lincoln home and married Abe’s stepsister, Elizabeth Johnston. The cabin serves an educational purpose, as a type of museum available for guests to visit and enter year round. Living history pioneer demonstrations inside the cabin are conducted for tour groups, school groups and for special events.”

Our visit to Buffalo Run Farm offered a rare chance to order a lunch of buffalo burgers. We were a little confused about the difference between buffalos and bison. We asked Dr. Beumel what distinguished the two. He said, “Technically, you are looking at a herd of bison in the fields back there, beyond the teepee. Now, there are two true buffalo – the African buffalo, which has never been domesticated, and it’s Asian counterpart, the water buffalo. The creatures which roamed the American continent are bison, although they are colloquially called buffalo.”

Later in the day while visiting Holiday World, the theme park president Will Koch joined Paula Werne, my mother, and me to share the stories of his family’s involvement in creating Indiana’s first national park, now called the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. Formerly known as the Nancy Hanks Lincoln Memorial Park, this landmark was the Lincoln homestead and now the gravesite of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, who passed on October 5, 1818.

Will Koch humbly said his father (Bill Koch) was influential in establishing the national park. According to national archives, it was Bill Koch’s brainchild from the beginning. He was the genius behind the process. Were it not for Bill Koch’s dream, the national memorial may never have come into being.

Paula Warne added, “On January 10, 1962 Bill Koch was present when JFK signed legislation creating the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Indiana.” (You can see the photo at

She showed us the ceremonial pen used by President Kennedy to sign the bill, which is now on display at Holiday World’s Lincoln Collection, among other impressive memorabilia preserved by the Koch dynasty.

Families wanting to experience a meaningful vacation this year will find a week at Lincoln’s old stomping grounds a perfect combination of fun, education, and discovery. With money being tight for many Americans this year, this area is particularly attractive with all of its free and value-priced activities and events. A vacation investment in Lincolnalia could yield an enriching return.

Lincoln's tourism connection
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