Two hundred years ago this week, on Feb. 12, 1809, in a humble, one-room log cabin near Hodgen's Mill, Ky., a baby boy was born who would become the 16th president of the United States.
"His mother was lying in a pole bed, covered with a bear skin to keep warm, so it must have been cold that morning," says Bertha Schmalfeldt, 50, while leading a tour of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Hodgenville, Ky. (pop. 2,874).
Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln named their son Abraham after his paternal grandfather, unaware that the child would grow up to emancipate the slaves and to lead and preserve the nation during its greatest internal crisis–the Civil War.
While the Lincoln family only lived in Hodgen's Mill until Abraham was 7–before moving on to Indiana and Illinois–the boy's frontier experiences in Kentucky helped shape the beliefs and values that he carried to the White House in Washington, D.C., in 1861.
Established in 1818, Hodgenville is named after Robert Hodgen, who operated a grist-mill on Nolin Creek, where the Lincoln family ground their grain. Today, Hodgenville remains a farming community that embraces the frontier roots, religious upbringing and enduring legacy of its native son.
"More has been written about him than any other human, except Jesus Christ," says Carl Howell Jr., 66, a Hodgenville native and owner of the Nancy Lincoln Inn. "He quoted the Bible more than any president before or since."
Fondness for its most famous resident is evident throughout the town. Two bronze Lincoln statues adorn the town square, which intersects with Lincoln Boulevard. Townspeople deposit their money at the Lincoln National Bank, dine at Abe's Country Cooking restaurant, send their children to Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, and enjoy live, wholesome musical entertainment at the Lincoln Jamboree each Saturday night.
Hodgenville also celebrates the life and legacy of its most famous resident during Lincoln Days each October. The three-day festival features a parade, pioneer-era games, a rail-splitting competition, and Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln look-alike contests. Last year, Dona Ebert of Munfordville, Ky., took first place for portraying Lincoln's wife, and John Mansfield, of Nashville, Tenn., won the Lincoln oratory and look-alike contests.
"The sincerest form of flattery is to be impersonated," says Jim Sayre, 73, a Lincoln impersonator from Lawrenceburg, Ky., who has attended Lincoln Days for 26 consecutive years.
While in Hodgen's Mill, young Abraham worshipped with his family at the Little Mount Baptist Church, watched corn and pumpkin seeds that he had planted get washed away by a flood, attended a one-room school with his sister Sarah, witnessed the burial of his infant brother and was saved from drowning by a boyhood friend.
He also likely saw slaves in shackles and chains traveling the Cumberland Trail that passed by his familys Knob Creek farm, and watched his father, engulfed in legal disputes, fail to obtain clear title to his Kentucky land, which prompted the Lincoln family to leave for Indiana in 1816.
"Kentucky has spent a lot of time and effort over the years to reclaim Lincoln, and to let people know that Kentucky, not Illinois, is his birthplace," says Iris LaRue, 55, director of The Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville. "And in the process, people around here have tried hard to learn more about our native son."