You Can Take the Cabin Out of Kentucky…Posted: June 27, 2011
I expected to find only four presidential birthplaces on my trip to the Boston area this past weekend. Especially considering, you know, only four U.S. presidents were born in Massachusetts (Adams, Adams, Kennedy, and Bush—strangely, all from notable presidential families). Conveniently, two of those four birthplaces (the Adams) are next door to each other at the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, MA, and a third (the house where George Herbert Walker Franklin Milhous Danforth “Dan” Bush was born in 1924) is literally a few miles up Adams Street, in Milton. And that’s where we found the fifth (fourth-and-a-half?) presidential birthplace in historic Norfolk County.
Surprise: Straight outta Hodgenville, it’s the one-room log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809.
An exact replica, to be precise. Rebecca and I stumbled upon this bad boy in the backyard of the historic Forbes House in Milton, MA.
Robert Bennet Forbes, you may know, was a nineteenth-century sea captain whose involvement in the China and opium trades during the Opium War produced glamorous wealth for the Forbes family. His brother, railroad tycoon John Murray Forbes, is the great-grandfather of almost-President John Forbes Kerry. And his Greek Revival-style mansion, flanked by stone gargoyles and still furnished with the family’s original art, furniture, and China-Trade heirlooms, is a hell of a lot swankier than the decrepit Lincoln log cabin straight-chillin’ in its backyard. Yes, we went inside:
As for the cabin? Captain Forbes’ batshit crazy granddaughter, Mary Bowditch Forbes, takes credit for that one. Mary was the last to live in the Forbes mansion (it opened as a museum three years after her death in 1962), and probably the least sane: an obsessive Lincoln devotee, she amassed hundreds of Lincoln-related artifacts and memorabilia, including, but certainly not limited to, the president’s boots, a cloth star from his coffin, and a shawl apparently worn by Mary Todd Lincoln to Ford’s Theater on the night of her husband’s assassination. There’s the set of original signatures and the account by James H. Wood of meeting Lincoln at Richmond. There’s the mold of Lincoln’s hand, the first edition Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All are housed today in the Lincoln Collection of the Forbes House Museum. And, unrelated to Lincoln, there are the countless regal portraits of Mary’s dogs dotting the proud halls of the Forbes mansion. What’s your hobby?
By 1923, Mary Bowditch Forbes was running out of space for her collection. And she had always dreamed of a gathering space for fellow Lincoln-lovers (or dog-worshiping Massachusetts opium heiresses, whatever). So she took the logical step: she hired a carpenter, one Robert S. Murdock, to build in her backyard an exact replica of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky. There, Ms. Forbes envisioned “a place where young and old, rich and poor, and people of every diverging interest may meet as Americans in a common love of Abraham Lincoln.” Click the plaque to enlarge.
According to one Boston.com account, Ms. Forbes sent the carpenter to Kentucky “to research the cabin’s measurements and gather indigenous materials for its construction.” But Murdock wasn’t fooling around:
While trees harvested from the nearby Blue Hills were used to build the cabin, clay from the land on which the original cabin stood in what is now Hodgenville, was used to make the mortar, and saplings from the area near Lincoln’s first home were transplanted to the Milton estate.
Once the structure was complete, Forbes moved her collection inside, and in 1925 she began a popular local tradition of opening its doors to the public twice a year – on Lincoln’s Birthday and Memorial Day. “People from surrounding towns would come to tour the cabin, view her collection, and have a cup of hot chocolate with her,” says Christine Sullivan, director of the Forbes House Museum. “The lines were known to reach from the cabin back up the lawn toward Adams Street.”
In 2000, the Forbes House Museum staff began occasionally opening the cabin to the public on Lincoln’s birthday, as Mary Bowditch Forbes had intended. But today the meager cabin looks lost and decrepit, a bizarre manifestation of one woman’s obsession on the grounds of a breathtaking historic estate. Ms. Forbes surely meant this as a sincere tribute to the sixteenth president’s memory. But somehow the odd replica stands to me as a more lasting testament to her own fascinating character and fiercely driven devotion, an artifact too personal for history, too fantastical for logic. If you build it, he will not come. But I will.
And yes, we made time for some real presidential birthplaces as well. Less than a mile up the road, also in Milton, is the birthplace and early childhood home of George H. W. Bush, at 173 Adams Street.
Here’s the house itself:
And a small stone plaque denoting its rich historic value:
Recall that Bush’s son Dubya ran against John Forbes Kerry in 2004. And notice that each candidate of that election traces some part of his ancestry to the same exact block of Adams Street in Milton, Massachusetts. Real life may not be stranger than fiction, but Milton undoubtedly is.
173 Adams Street is a privately owned residence today. The Bushes moved shortly after George’s birth; appropriately, 41’s presidential library and museum is way the fuck down in College Station, Texas. But we knocked on its creaky, battered front door and met Dean, a kindly older gentleman who has lived in the historic Victorian home for 46 years. Dean was in the middle of dinner, he told us. This was no time for a doorstep interview. But once he got started, Dean couldn’t himself talking. About Milton history, and Thomas Hutchinson, the colonial Massachusetts governor for whom bordering Hutchinson Street was named. About his collection of Bush-related documents, including a copy of the president’s birth certificate. About meeting Bush’s mother way back when and discussing the home they have both owned.
There’s no full interview to share, unfortunately, and no easy way to get in touch with Dean, considering he gave me a blank stare when I tried to hand him my email address. But he promised to stay in touch and even mail me some prime Bush-related documents, straight outta 173 Adams Street. You’ll be the first to find out when he does.
Below, a full gallery from my trip to Milton, Massachusetts, fake birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, real birthplace of George H. W. Bush. Coming soon, straight-up deets on the JFK and Adams birthplaces, in Brookline and Quincy respectively. But first, I’m making my way to Vermont.