When Lincoln Was a Boy


Mr. Pettengill, noted attorney and author, was formerly a congressman from Indiana.

Have you ever been alone at night in pri­meval wilderness? There are not many places now where virgin timber stands untouched by ax or saw.

One such place is Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. I was there one September. It told me something about Lincoln. I pass it on to you.

Toward midnight I went in the woods alone far from sight or sound of the nearest human being. A huge harvest moon in a cloudless sky sent long pencils of light down through the foliage of the forest. The gigantic tulip trees and sycamores stood in a hush of attention as if listening for the remotest whisper from earth or sky. They reached almost as high as an eight-story building before sending off their lowest branches. The massive trunks, glistening in the moonlight, seemed like the columns of some temple of the Egyptians where men worshipped forty centuries ago.

A curious sensation came over me. I felt my utter insignificance — the merest speck in space, and yet, with that feeling of littleness, another quite different. It seemed that I could reach up past that leafy ceiling to the quiet stars; that I could reach down through the cool earth to the roots of those titans of the forest as they sought and found the sap of their sustenance.

The patience of the stars, the calmness of the sleeping earth, the massive strength of those mighty trees, the clean tang of the midnight air, — all these entered through some window I did not know I had. I hope you have all felt these things, if only once in a life­time.

And then, as I stood there, I thought of Lincoln when he was a little boy in Indiana seven score years ago. It occurred to me, with a significance I had never realized, that when he was a lad it was pri­meval forest everywhere, not at Turkey Run alone; that every night when he was a little boy and everywhere when he was alone in the woods, he must have sensed those same impalpable presences; that what was to me an unforget­table hour was to him the constant companionship of all his impressionable years.

The friendliness of trees! We have lost something in this age of brick and steel and concrete. Not so in 1816. Trees made the flat boat that gave safe passage across the Ohio to little Abe and his sister Sarah, to his father and Nancy Hanks. Trees made the "half-faced" cabin — open on one side to the bleak weather — where they spent their first Indiana winter. Trees fed the fire that gave them warmth and lighted the pages of the Bible. Trees made for them their bed of leaves. Trees gave them the sugar of the maples, the brown nuts of autumn. Trees drove out the mosquitoes with their pungent log-fire smoke. Trees drove back the wolf and the panther with their glowing pine knots. Yes, and trees made for them crude chairs, tables, beds, ax-helves, ox-yokes, cradles, cof­fins. Little Abe with a whipsaw helped fashion one of these pioneer coffins. In its embrace a pioneer woman went "over Jordan."

Trees were friendly things.

"Such were a few of the many, many things the moon might have told little Abe Lincoln, going on eight, on a winter night on Little Pigeon Creek, in the Buckhorn Valley in Southern Indiana — a high quarter-moon with a white shine of thin frost on the long open spaces of the sky." You will find this in Carl Sandburg’s "Prairie Years."

And then I thought of how little schooling the world has said Lin­coln had — little Abe and Sister Sally tramping hand in hand over rough trails to school — four miles and back — eight miles a day. Not much schooling there for two little children.

But suddenly I felt less sorry for Abraham Lincoln. Everywhere he went were the trees of the prime­val forest—tulips, sycamores, oaks, elms, maples, beeches, walnuts. Everywhere that sense of peace, that feeling of being close to God. And I knew then that the state­ment in the books that Lincoln had little schooling was false, that he was at school many and many an hour when the boy of today is teacherless, learning the patience and the strength and the tough­ness and tenderness of trees, a les­son from the great Book of Life that never needs revision.

I understood better then the saying of the pioneers: "The cowards never started and the weak never arrived." I understood the Rail Splitter better and Amer­ica better in the big timber at Turkey Run.


February 1957

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December 2014

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