The New Deal and Old Abe: Rockport’s Lincoln Pioneer Village

History-minded people of Indiana have long touted Abraham Lincoln’s formative time in the state where he lived for fourteen years and came of age.  Illinois, with its “Land of Lincoln” license plates, has done a better job of promoting its connection to Old Abe, and Kentucky, with its questionable birthplace cabin housed within a Greek temple, has created nothing less than a shrine.

Still, Indiana has the Lincoln Boyhood National Historic Site, incorporating the gravesite of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham’s mother, and a replica of the homestead, as well as a beautiful series of limestone relief sculptures by Elmer Harlan Daniels.  Across the highway is Lincoln State Park, developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Scattered about southwestern Indiana are various sites with Lincoln associations commemorated with historical markers.

Postcard circa 1940.

Hidden at the edge of Rockport City Park in Spencer County is an educational tourist attraction built in the 1930s under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A particularly ambitious project for such a small town, Lincoln Pioneer Village was designed by noted artist and sculptor George Honig.

Living history museums, notably Colonial Williamsburg, had just begun to appear at the time the Lincoln Pioneer Village was created, and boosters around the country were mining local histories for possibilities. The concept of the “intelligent use of leisure time” had begun to enjoy mass appeal toward the end of the Progressive Era and especially after World War I. That some of these projects, as well as other educational tourist attractions such as Dinosaur Park near Rapid City, South Dakota, were created under New Deal auspices should come as no surprise. In seeking New Deal funds, a community project that not only provided employment and an attraction that would generate local business, but that also reflected the ideal of using one’s recreational time advantageously, would enhance its value in the eyes of the government officials who judged the applications. Another recreated village that used New Deal labor (the CCC) was New Salem in Illinois, young Abraham Lincoln’s first home independent of his family.

Groundbreaking for WPA work in Rockport City Park, 1935.

Next to roads, recreational facilities comprised the largest proportion of FERA and WPA projects in Indiana. Typically these were developments of a traditional nature, such as park beautification projects including rock gardens and fountains and sports facilities such as ball diamonds, tennis courts, golf courses and swimming pools. For example, the WPA improved the recreational grounds of Rockport City Park, created a small lake with an island and built a landscaped fieldstone entrance that led to the Lincoln Pioneer Village. Some of the landscaping remains, but the lake with its island is long gone, replaced by a playing field.

Original sketches by George Honig.

The Lincoln Pioneer Village was the brainchild of sculptor George Honig, a native of Rockport and well known regionally as a Lincoln scholar, who approached the Spencer County Historical Society with his idea in 1933. They enthusiastically supported the plan to promote the Lincoln legacy and local history. Honig and the society then turned to the Civil Works Administration (CWA) for help in early 1934, but nothing came of it – possibly because the project was much too grand to complete during the brief existence of the CWA.

FERA took up the proposal, however, as it began a program of work projects after the CWA closed down. Honig, with the full support of the historical society, took his plans to the city council, which successfully applied to FERA to erect the memorial village that would “make our town a center for tourists.” FERA would fund the labor of relief workers, but everything else was a local responsibility. Happily, an intensive public campaign to solicit money, materials, and artifacts from the community, the county, and even statewide was very successful. Descendants of the pioneers whose homes were replicated in the village even donated family heirlooms to furnish the buildings.

With great ceremony and celebration, the Lincoln Pioneer Village was dedicated on July 4, 1935. Scores of costumed interpreters portrayed specific characters and generic pioneer Hoosiers. Ten log buildings had been constructed by FERA workers, along with various elements of landscaping: wells, fencing, and replica pieces, such as ox carts, to add to the pioneer atmosphere. The overall setting represented a typical early nineteenth-century village in southern Indiana.

FERA workers displaying the oxcart they built.

With the launching of the WPA the same year, a new project was proposed to add more buildings to the village, as well as substantial landscaping and recreational facilities to the park. This work was completed in 1936 and dedicated, again with much fanfare, on July 4.

Replica of pioneer school, 1935 photograph.

Lincoln Pioneer Village was vigorously promoted by Rockport and the Spencer County Historical Society. Most of the individual structures were close replicas of actual buildings which had been scattered throughout the area in the early nineteenth century. Many played some role, large or small, in Lincoln’s coming of age; others were more significant for their place in the early history of the county.

FERA workers built the blockhouse, oxcart, tavern, and wagon pictured here.

The crude Brown Tavern, for example, was Rockport’s first inn and had accommodated many famous visitors. A blockhouse fort replicated one that had been located in Grandview, overlooking the Ohio River. Lincoln worked as a clerk in the Jones Store, which had been located in Jonesboro (present Gentryville). John Pitcher’s Law Office in Rockport was the first in Spencer County; Pitcher lent young Lincoln books. The Lincoln children worked at the Josiah Crawford Home and young Abraham borrowed books from the family.

Replica of Old Pigeon Baptist Church.

The building called the Crawford cabin was originally interpreted as a pioneer church during its first year, until the Old Pigeon Baptist Church, which replicated one that Thomas and Abraham Lincoln helped to build, was completed in 1936. The Pioneer School represented the crude sort of building in which young Lincoln received a smattering of education when he could be spared from work.

Replica of Lincoln Cabin, 1936 photograph.

The Lincoln Cabin replicated the family’s second homestead in Spencer County, with a loft reached by a series of pegs driven into the wall. There was a Barter and Market House, but it was demolished in the 1980s. Visitors originally entered the village near its northwest corner through a double cabin that served as office, gift shop, and museum. That, too, was torn down in the early 1980s.

Honig’s original conception had included several more buildings, including artisans’ shops and a small cluster of Native American dwellings, but no more were built; for about fifteen years Lincoln Pioneer Village remained essentially as it had been in 1936 at the second dedication ceremony. In 1950, near the site’s northeast corner, the city built a concrete block museum building that faced outward from the village. A few years later, scenes from the Hollywood film The Kentuckian  starring Burt Lancaster were shot in the village. As part of the movie set the production crew constructed an additional building (a “tobacco warehouse”), which was incorporated into the village site as an early transportation museum. Later, wagons once housed within were placed alongside the building, and the interior used for storage.

For decades, Lincoln Pioneer Village remained an active educational and tourist attraction. Thousands of schoolchildren visited from around the state (I was one!). But by the 1970s the village had declined. The building of the city swimming pool in 1963 in close proximity to the village was an unfortunate choice esthetically.  Poor maintenance and the elements were taking their toll on the buildings.  The original fence of rough-cut poles that encircled the village was replaced with chainlink and faced with commercial stockade fencing on the north side only.

Four of the buildings eventually succumbed to termite damage and were rebuilt in the late 1980s using labor donated by the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion (Seabees), during a misguided effort to revive the village. The original entrance, which had begun to sag dangerously, was demolished. Two other structures that were in a sorry state, the Grandview Blockhouse and the Barter House, were demolished. The restoration campaign dwindled to nothing by the early 1990s.

By that time, many local supporters had given up the village for lost. But onetime city council member and Rockport gadfly, Lila B. Daniel, had not. She contacted historic preservationists who knew the significance of the site.  For, despite the shrieks of children splashing in the nearby pool and despite the neglected buildings with their valuable artifacts unprotected within, Lincoln Pioneer Village had managed to retain its original atmosphere as conceived in the 1930s.

The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places early in 1998, as an unusual example of New Deal construction and an early educational tourist attraction.  This allowed Old Rockport, Inc. to apply for funds to restore the village to its New Deal-era appearance, including reconstructing several of the demolished buildings through a Hometown Grant Rehabilitation Project. Renovated and rededicated in the fall of 2001, Lincoln Pioneer Village today remains true to its original interpretation, while at the same time honoring the Depression-era programs and relief workers who made it possible.

Glory-June Greiff is a public historian based in Indianapolis. She has been researching the work of New Deal for 35 years.

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