One time when I was splitting firewood for my grandfather, he said “Be careful with that ax, It once belonged to Abraham Lincoln.” I looked at him, not really believing him fully, “Yah, I had to replace the handle once, but that is the very ax used by Abe Lincoln.”
“Really?” I naively replied.
“Yes, of course the old head of the ax got pretty rusty, so I replaced it too, but that was the very ax used by old Abe Lincoln.”
My family and I were traveling through Kentucky and decided to stop in and see Lincoln’s birthplace. On the hillside was a large memorial temple that enshrined the “symbolic” log cabin marking where the president had been born. The park ranger/interpreter explained that they had thought the small log structure had been the actual cabin, but it had turned out to be a period single-pen log building that had belonged to a neighbor of the Lincoln family.
The log cabin is an icon of the early settlers of this country. Today, the cabin is invoked as a sign of American historical identity, symbolizing the hard work and determination of early settlers who scratched out a living on the frontier. While it is true
that many early settlers made great sacrifices, it is important to remember them not just symbolically, but also as real people, who lived real lives. Kernels of truth are encrusted with the legends we love to tell, and it is our job to not over romanticize the past or our ancestors, but try to better understand their real lives and expressive forms of culture.