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One woman's monument to Lincoln

Artifacts once kept in the replica cabin are now in the Milton house for safekeeping. Artifacts once kept in the replica cabin are now in the Milton house for safekeeping. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2009

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MILTON -- Abraham Lincoln is a hard man to avoid these days. Last month's presidential inauguration of another lanky Illinoisan has made the Great Emancipator as ubiquitous as Miley Cyrus. And you can be sure Honest Abe will continue to garner headlines this month since Feb. 12 marks the bicentennial of his birth.

It may be hard to throw a rock in New England without hitting some Colonial inn where George Washington is claimed to have grabbed some shut-eye, but even someone blessed with Tom Brady's rifle arm could have a hard time striking a Lincoln-related site in the region. Just a stone's throw from Boston, however, is an unlikely place where New Englanders can celebrate Lincoln's birthday.

Tucked behind the magnificent Greek Revival mansion of the Forbes House Museum in Milton is an exact replica of the log cabin in Hardin County, Ky., where the 16th president was born. Mary Bowditch Forbes, the last member of the Forbes family to live in the mansion, built the one-room cabin in the 1920s to house her collection of artifacts and memorabilia related to Lincoln and the Civil War.

Forbes's voluminous compilation began with, of all things, a simple one-cent piece minted in 1909 for the centennial of Lincoln's birth. It would be worth a penny for Forbes's thoughts to learn why that coin sparked a passion to collect Lincolniana. For the better part of the next 50 years, she collected more than 1,000 items and filled numerous scrapbooks with newspaper clippings.

Forbes's collection ranges from the pedestrian (photographs of Union troops) to the quirky (an 1860 Lincoln campaign hat in the shape of a coffee pot) to the macabre (a life mask of the president's face and a mold of his hand). A fair number of items are related to Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, such as a shawl worn by Mary Todd Lincoln that fateful night in Ford's Theater, a cloth star from Lincoln's coffin, and a piece of the rope used to hang conspirators. Other highlights include a set of original Lincoln signatures, paintings of Civil War battle scenes, and a first edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Forbes's growing collection quickly began to pose a storage problem, so she came up with an inspired solution. She commissioned Thomas Murdock, a local carpenter, to build her a replica of Lincoln's rustic birthplace.

Murdock drove to Kentucky to research the cabin's measurements and gather indigenous materials for its construction. 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."

Not surprisingly, a log cabin was not conducive to the preservation of fragile paper documents and artifacts, and the collection is now housed inside the mansion. While the custom of opening the cabin to the public around Lincoln's Birthday ended with Forbes's death in 1962, the museum revived the tradition in 2000, even serving free hot chocolate to guests.

This year's birthday festivities next Sunday will be particularly special because they will be the focus for bicentennial commemorations in Massachusetts. The celebration will include Civil War reenactors from the Massachusetts 22d and 54th Regiments, a living history team portraying President and Mrs. Lincoln, and period music from a naval band. Of course, guests will be able to browse selected items from the collection, now on permanent display in one of the mansion's former bedrooms.

The Forbes mansion, built in 1833, couldn't be more different from the humble log cabin behind it. Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, a leading merchant in the China trade, and his siblings built the house for their mother, and from its commanding perch on the crest of Milton Hill, she could watch her son sail in and out of Boston Harbor on great clipper ships bound for ports all over the world.

Today, original heirloom pieces that Forbes fetched from the Orient are on display here. Among them are a massive Chinese lantern hanging from the high ceiling, a porcelain campaign bowl, intricately carved cabinets, and a suite of furniture put together with hand pegs (no nails or glue) so that it could be compact enough to be stored aboard a ship for the long voyage to America. Even the parlor's wallpaper was imported from China.

The decor of the house has a maritime flavor, fitting for a family that spearheaded the expansion of American trade with China and contributed to Boston's growth as a sea power. Marine paintings by Robert Salmon adorn the walls, and a model ship, with real canvas and rope, built by Captain Forbes as a learning aid for sightless students at the Perkins School for the Blind, graces the library.

Looking out on the harbor from a second-floor study is the wheel of the USS Jamestown, which Forbes commanded in 1847 from Boston as part of an American relief effort for victims of the Irish famine. It was the first time Congress lent a warship to a private citizen for a foreign voyage.

While Mary Bowditch Forbes was consumed with all things Lincoln, she eschewed many modern conveniences. That means that visitors will find much of the house - including the kitchen and bathrooms - unchanged since the 1800s. The house still has its original stove, an antique refrigerator, and a tin bathtub from the 1870s.

Visitors can still see the bell system Forbes used to beckon servants, but her greatest legacy is probably the annual Lincoln Day ritual.

"This tradition is important because it gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like during Lincoln's time," Sullivan says. "A one-room cabin on a cold February day makes you understand what people of that era endured and has you appreciating something as simple as a cup of hot chocolate."

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.