Have you ever taken the “one tank trip” to Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in southern Indiana, to see the log cabin where our sixteenth president grew up?  Do you remember dressing up in a stovepipe hat and donning a fake beard to play Lincoln in your elementary school’s President’s Day play?  As Hoosiers, the legacy of Lincoln is in our blood.

Old Lincoln Pic

The author (right) during one of the aforementioned “one-tank trips” to Lincoln’s boyhood home, circa mid-1980’s.

But I bet you’ve never seen the life of Abraham Lincoln like you can in the Indiana State Museum’s The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family.

Lincoln Entrance Sign

The exhibit, which runs through August 4, places President Abraham Lincoln in the middle of its timeline.  It gives the visitor a rare glimpse into the Lincoln family’s history, from his great-great-great-great grandfather Samuel, who arrived in the Massachusetts colony from Hingham, Norfolk, England in 1637 to Lincoln’s father Thomas, whose father, also named Abraham, was killed when Thomas was only eight years old.

Among the artifacts on display is a wood cabinet carved by hand attributed to Lincoln’s father, Thomas, a quite impressive example of simple, sturdy handicraft.  Also included are examples of Abraham’s schoolwork.  I always thought Abraham Lincoln to be a stoic, serious person, but the humorous poems he jotted in the corner of his iterations of various mathematical summations brought to light a different side of the young man who would later become our president. One read, “Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]; And with my pen I wrote the same; I wrote in both hast[e] and speed; and left it here for fools to read.”

Lincoln’s wife, Mary, is also prominently featured in the exhibit, and not as the quiet, rotund figure often seen in textbooks and White House portraits.  The visitor sees another side of Mary too – the well bred, well educated, opinionated socialite, who loved fine things before experiencing so much tragedy in the death of three sons and her husband.

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Furnishings and personal effects from the Lincoln White House

At first I was taken aback by the exhibit’s lack of direct mention or artifact related to Lincoln’s assassination.  However, upon further inspection I realized there needn’t be – it is part of history we all know too well, and this exhibit was more concerned with the aftermath – Mary’s mourning, the trial to declare her insane, and the continuance of the Lincoln legacy through Abraham’s oldest son, Robert.

While a little confusing in its design, the exhibit includes an interactive family tree, tracing the Lincoln tree from its roots at Abraham’s parents, to its more contemporary members, Robert’s great grandchildren. The last parts of the exhibit give the visitor a glimpse into the lives of the quiet, unassuming Lincoln dynasty.  A gem in the exhibit comes at the end – a set of three panels, similar to a room divider, with illustrations and text from a variety of books, used by Robert to tell his children and grandchildren bedtime stories.

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Storyboard Robert Lincoln used to tell stories to his children and grandchildren

This exhibit is the story of Abraham Lincoln most of us have never heard – Lincoln the person, the story behind the man, and the people who began and continued his legacy.