Landmark News Service
An early-morning fire Friday at Freeman Lake Park has Elizabethtown reeling as an integral piece of history was left in ruins. While offering no insight into a possible motive, Elizabethtown police arrested a 34-year-old man later in the day on an arson charge.
The Lincoln Heritage House caught fire early Friday morning, resulting in a total loss of the property, Elizabethtown Fire Chief Mike Hulsey said. The Elizabethtown Fire Department responded to the call for assistance about 4:52 a.m., but Hulsey said the structure could not be saved. Rusty Todd, the department's safety officer, said the cabin was "gutted" by fire and partially collapsed.
While salvage efforts of the charred remains are planned, much of the woodwork produced by Abraham Lincoln's father likely was destroyed in the blaze, including a stairway leading to a second-story bedroom. A farmer, Thomas Lincoln earned extra income by hiring himself out as a carpenter.
The building was “irreplaceable,” said Steve Haaff, an Indiana teacher who studies and reproduces Lincoln woodwork.
Elizabethtown City Councilman Tim Walker said these may include ironwork, such as pots. Over the years, people have donated pieces dating back to around the early 1800s to the site.
Kenneth R. Bennett, an Elizabethtown resident, is believed to have started the fire, Elizabethtown Police Department spokesman Virgil Willoughy said.
Police investigators believe that Bennett lit a container of trash and placed it inside the Lincoln Heritage House while taking his regular walk Friday morning, Willoughby said..
“He walks this area frequently,” Willoughby said. “We can only guess as to a motive.”
Willoughby said preliminary observations by police investigating the crime indicate that Bennett could suffer from reduced mental capacity.
Taken into custody soon after the fire was reported, Bennett is charged with arson and is being held at the Hardin County Detention Center. He will be arraigned Monday in Hardin District Court.
The structure has far-reaching historical significance because it is registered as a historical site both statewide and nationally. The two houses that comprise the Lincoln Heritage House originally belonged to local pioneer Hardin Thomas, who enlisted the help of Thomas Lincoln — Abraham Lincoln’s father — to build the latter structure around 1805, according to the Elizabethtown Tourism and Commission Bureau. The Hardin County Historical Society restored the facility and made it available for visitors in 1973. It was also a stop on the Lincoln Heritage Trail and organizations like the Hardin County History Museum and the tourism bureau were prepping the home for tours during this year’s Heartland Festival. Hulsey said the dollar amount of the loss has not been determined.
Sherry Murphy, executive director of the tourism bureau, said the home was priceless to the county. “The loss is immeasurable,” Murphy said. “For property this historic to be lost, you just can’t replace it.”