Patriotic Ceremonies took place around historic Sinking Spring

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By Carl Howell Jr.

   In the early winter of 1808, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln and their infant daughter, Sarah, moved from Elizabethtown, Hardin County, Kentucky, to Sinking Spring Farm, located about three miles south of Robert Hodgen’s Mill, also in Hardin County, present-day LaRue County since 1843.
Thomas actually purchased the farm, then believed to contain 300 acres, on Dec. 12, 1808, from Isaac Bush for $200 cash and the assumption of a small obligation owed to Richard Mather, an earlier titleholder.
In the deed, which designates the boundaries of the farm at the time the Lincolns lived there, is the following clause, “…a certain parcel or tract of land on the waters of the South Fork of Nolin, containing three hundred acres, beginning near or at the spring called the Sinking Spring.”
Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin on this farm on Sunday morning, Feb. 12, 1809 — only 17 years after Kentucky had attained statehood.
A perennial spring of sparkling water flowed from an underground passageway and out through a cave opening only a few feet from the Lincoln cabin. The farm had become known among pioneer settlers in the area as Sinking Spring Farm, Rock Spring Farm, and Cave Spring Farm due to the cavernous depths to which the water would sink after emanating from its cave opening. Here, at the bottom of a hillside, the family obtained its drinking water during the two-and-a-half years they lived on the farm.
The most picturesque feature of Sinking Spring Farm was the area surrounding the cave opening from which clear spring water seemed to magically appear before falling and disappearing only a few feet away into a sunken underground chasm. During early pioneer days, a much-traveled trail passed by the convenient watering place and the spring became known for miles around. Despite occasional droughts during the summer, the sparkling cold stream never ran dry and was thought to be the best drinking water in the area. Undoubtedly, the spring was a motivating factor in the Lincolns’ decision to purchase the farm.
After the Civil War and sometime in the 1880s, groups of people who resided in Kentucky and adjoining states began making pilgrimages to Sinking Spring Farm. As the number of visitors began to increase on the anniversary date of Lincoln’s birth, Feb. 12, and on July 4, brief patriotic ceremonies began taking place there to honor the renowned Civil War President. On these occasions, participants often congregated around the historic spring to tell stories and to reminisce about family members and friends who made the supreme sacrifice, whether for the Union or for the Confederacy.
In 1895, Ida M. Tarbell published a biography of Abraham Lincoln entitled Life of Lincoln. This widely-acclaimed work was more fully illustrated than any previous biography of our 16th President. A large number of photographs were taken for this history by Ms. Tarbell and others which contributed to its popularity.
Among the pictures was one bearing the caption, “Rock Spring, On The Farm Where Lincoln Was Born. From a photograph taken in September 1895 for this biography.” It reveals the Sinking Spring much as it must have appeared when the Lincoln family resided in their log cabin nearby. A few men and boys can be seen posing for the photographer, but the most noticeable person is clearly the bearded man holding a cane in his right hand sitting closest to the camera.
Many years ago I was given the original photo used by Ms. Tarbell in her biography. On the backside, Ms. Tarbell, or one of her associates, had written in ink, “The man with a cane sitting in the foreground is Lincoln’s last playmate (Gollaher).” Although her interview of Austin Gollaher includes details of his rescue of young Abe from drowning in Knob Creek, Ms. Tarbell failed to identify him in either the caption or the text.
On March 8, 1898, Kentucky Governor William O. Bradley wrote the following letter to Mr. James Speed, Jr., “Considering the brotherly love which existed between Mr. Lincoln and your father, I have thought it appropriate to request you to go to the Old Homestead of Mr. Lincoln near Hodgenville and bring or send some water from the spring which quenched his thirst in infancy, in order that it may be used on the 24th of this month in christening the battleship Kentucky. Kindly let me know whether you will comply with the request.” (Mr. Speed’s father, who is mentioned in the letter, served as Attorney General during Lincoln’s Administration.)
Mr. Speed replied by letter to Governor Bradley stating, in part, “It will give me great pleasure to comply with the request. I will, without delay, go in person and bring to you a supply of water from the Lincoln spring…”
It was agreed that Miss Christine Bradley, the Governor’s young daughter, would be given the honor of christening the battleship.
The owner of Sinking Spring Farm was Alfred W. Dennett, a restaurant chain owner and patron of missionary organizations, who resided in New York City. J. W. Bigham, Dennett’s attorney-in-fact and Hodgenville Methodist Church pastor, wrote a letter to Miss Bradley to request her to christen the mighty vessel. She was delighted with the idea, as was her father, who had earlier expressed his opinion that neither bourbon nor champagne should be used.
Mr. Speed and his daughter, Miss Hallie Speed, traveled to Hodgenville on March 11 and were driven the remaining distance to Sinking Spring Farm. After a brief visit of the birthplace site, Miss Speed took the jug, knelt down by the famous spring and filled it with the sparkling liquid.
On March 24, 1898, Miss Christine Bradley christened the new battleship Kentucky as she broke the jug against its hull and launched the great ship on its maiden voyage.
Over 33 years later, in November 1931, Kentucky Governor Flem D. Sampson traveled to Sinking Spring Farm and personally scooped up a container of water from the spring for an identical purpose. On Dec. 5, 1931, the water was used to launch the new United States Lines ship Manhattan, the largest ship ever built in America at that time.
This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Kentucky Explorer.