Original publish date: February 14, 2016.
Tuesday February 9th was an especially busy day for Governor Mike Pence. It was also an especially happy day for our state’s history-loving Chief Executive. That afternoon, he proudly watched as his protege, Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann, became president of Ivy Tech Community College. Governor Pence then introduced his pick to replace her, former state Republican Party chairman Eric Holcomb. Historic events for our state to be sure, but the Governor’s wide grin that afternoon was due mostly to an event he presided over at the Indiana State Museum earlier in the day.
That morning, Governor Pence unveiled the most important personal artifact ever discovered directly connected to Abraham Lincoln, the Hoosier. The rough-hewn handled relic is referred to by the State Museum as “Abraham Lincoln’s Mallet, 1829.” It was put on display at ISM on Lincoln’s birthday (February 12th) and will remain on view at the museum throughout 2016 to coincide with our state’s 200th anniversary celebration. It was the crescendo of a 188 year journey made almost entirely in secret. So secret that Governor Pence himself was kept in the dark about it until shortly before the unveiling.
The primitive looking hammer seems perfectly matched to the muscular 20-year-old young man who wielded it back in 1829. The mallet is made from the trunk of a tree cut from the virgin timber forest that once populated Spencer County, Indiana. No doubt Thomas Lincoln cut the tree from the unbroken forest surrounding the family cabin for use by his young son Abraham in splitting wood. Those famous “rail splitting” images we all remember from our history books? Well they all picture Honest Abe using this mallet.
State museum Chief Curator Dale Ogden points out that the mallet on display is about one half it’s original size. “It was originally twice this size in diameter. The mallet had a longer handle. The tool saw heavy use and the damage presumably occurred in the course of normal, everyday usage.” Ogden continues “The mallet is an extremely rare and important find that connects Abraham Lincoln to his Hoosier roots and to the rail-splitter legend.”
“This artifact was originally a splitting maul used by Lincoln to drive iron wedges into logs creating split rails for fencing. The maul head, made from a tree-root ball, eventually split in half,” said Steve Haaff, Spencer County resident and foremost expert on Lincoln furniture made in Indiana. “Rather than discard the tool, Lincoln repurposed it into a bench mallet he used to drive pegs into furniture and other fixtures. Lincoln discarded the long handle and relocated a shorter grip into the remaining portion of the maul to create a mallet.”
Before Governor Pence dropped the curtain to reveal the relic, he took off his jacket to reveal rolled up shirt sleeves in a workingman’s fashion to honor the Indiana Railsplitter. “I thought it was appropriate for the occasion,” the Governor explained. Staying in the moment, Pence harkens back to a predecessor by repeating Governor Otis Bowen’s quote, “Lincoln made Illinois, but Indiana made Lincoln.” He made sure to mention his trip to Southern Indiana a couple days before to bury another predecessor, Edgar Whitcomb, who died February 6th. Make no mistake about it, Mike Pence loves Indiana history.
Pence, a history major at Hanover College, could barely contain his excitment as he removed the cover hand-over-hand as if he were climbing a rope. When the cloth cover became stuck on top of the case, Pence was the one to dislodge it. Amid the awe inspiring big reveal, it was Pence himself who scurried to hastily gather the material now piled on the floor in front of the priceless relic and stow it safely, yet reverently, away behind the case. After his official duties were concluded, Mike Pence quickly slipped into a role that was obviously more pleasing to him; that of being a fan of Hoosier history.
According to Steve Haaff, the mallet descended through the family of Barnabus Carter, a neighbor of the Lincolns. Haaff explains that he has discovered nearly a dozen and a half original pieces of furniture attributed to Thomas Lincoln and his young apprentice Abraham. Most of the pieces are done in the Federal style but some are quite primitive. “Lincoln made this furniture for his neighbors and priced it according to what they could pay,” says Haaff. Dale Ogden expounds on Haaff’s statement by saying “If a person had $ 5 and a chicken, Thomas Lincoln made a piece of furniture equal to that price. If they had $ 5 and a pig, the quality appreciated accordingly.”
Of those 18 pieces, Haaff believes that half are in museums and half in private homes. Haaff is still turning up pieces today. “The stories behind the furniture are as much fun as discovering the furniture itself. Often, the owner is still using the furniture in their home everyday.” says Haaff. “The University of Michigan has a Lincoln cabinet in their office, not on display, but in their office. The staff had screwed in little gold cup hooks underneath the cabinet to hang their coffee cups from!”
In an attempt to unravel the mallet’s secret journey, I spoke with one of the family members present at the unveiling press conference. Tom Vicki explains that he first learned of the mallet’s existence from his cousin Keith Carter, the Gr-Gr-Gr-Great Grandson son of Barnabus. “I was told that the mallet was a family secret known by only a few. It had been kept hidden for 175 years in the basement ceiling of the Carter’s Richland, Indiana home.” Vicki continues, “It then traveled to Rockport for a few years before it ended up here. 187 years in the same family and Spencer County’s best kept secret the whole time”
The mallet most closely resembles a carnival strongman’s prop,or Thor’s hammer, but a closer examination immediately reveals it’s cryptic secret. Above the handle’s stem lay the initials “A.L.” with a year date of “1829.” Steve Haaff explains that the initials and date are not carved as one may surmise, but rather they are metal inlays. Haaff states, “Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter and Abe was his only apprentice. Thomas hoped that his young son would follow him into carpentry, but Abe Lincoln wanted to be a blacksmith. These metal pieces were inserted into the mallet by Abe Lincoln himself.”
ISM’s Ogden further explains, “He didn’t put those initials and that date into the mallet because he was Abraham Lincoln, he put them there to mark the tool as his own. He was just a Hoosier farm-boy at the time with no idea he was on his way to becoming a legend.” Ogden, whose fervor for Lincoln is rivaled by few, explains the mallet’s secret by identifying it as the only known item that ties Abraham Lincoln to Indiana. “The Lincoln’s were Indiana pioneers, they arrived here just a week before we were made a state in the Union. While they were not poor, they were also not wealthy.” says Ogden. “The Lincoln family used everything they owned, in most cases using it all up. When they moved to Illinois in 1830, they couldn’t take everything with them and this mallet was among those things left behind. Whether Abe gave the mallet to his neighbors, or whether the Carter family simply picked it up from the pile of discards is debatable. But we’re certainly glad it survived and are delighted to be able to display it for our guests.”
Mr. Ogden, a subject of past articles, has an innate ability to blend history with current events. He presides over one of the foremost state-owned collections of Lincoln artifacts and memorabilia with an exuberance that borders on fanaticism. The bulk of the ISM collection was obtained from the Lincoln Financial Life Insurance company who began collecting all things Lincoln in 1915 and opened their museum in 1931. The museum closed in 2008 and for a time, the fate of the collection was in doubt. “There was talk of selling the collection at auction.” says Ogden. “One rumor had the collection being bought up by Donald Trump for display at one of his Casinos.”
Ogden explains that the ISM was fortunate to obtain the collection and although it is vast and comprehensive, he says that the question he got the most from visitors was, “Where is the Indiana material? and I always had to reply, There is no Indiana material. This mallet changes all that. Those railsplitter legends were all we had. This mallet confirms that folklore and brings all of those stories together.”
Steve Haaff talked about young Abe Lincoln’s subservient role to his father Thomas. “When Lincoln returned to Indiana in 1844 to campaign for Henry Clay for President, he visited a house of a neighbor who he knew to have a piece of furniture that Lincoln and his father had created.” Haaff continued, “As they passed, the buildings he knew were mostly gone. His wagon passed an empty, neglected saw pit and Lincoln remarked that this was where he and his father hand sawed the planks used to make his mother’s coffin.”
Lincoln’s mother Nancy died of milk sickness in October of 1818. Haaff states that the planks were made from a log from the leftovers pile used to make the family cabin. “Thomas made the coffin while 9-year-old Abe sat nearby and whittled the pegs for his mother’s coffin.” His mother’s death, and that of his beloved elder sister Sarah’s death 10 years later, devastated Lincoln and laid the foundation for the depression that haunted him for the rest of his life. No doubt, Thomas and Abraham made the coffin for Sarah too.
Although it can never be proved and is purely conjecture on my part, is it not hard to imagine that Lincoln may have used this very mallet in performance of those sad tasks. Maybe during one of those moments of melancholy in 1829, Lincoln carefully memorialized his ownership by carefully hammering in the pieces of metal he felt would hold significance to him in the future. Lincoln had issues with his years growing up in Southern Indiana and even deeper issues with his father. Thomas Lincoln never met his grandchildren, did not attend Abe & Mary’s wedding and Lincoln did not attend his father’s funeral in 1851. So, when the fog of depression cleared from 21-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s tortured soul, maybe he left that mallet behind on purpose. Now it is on display at the Indiana State Museum for you to go visit, examine and daydream about Lincoln the Hoosier.