Every time a penny comes up heads or a five dollar bill gets changed, Americans are reminded of how Abraham Lincoln -- 16th president of the United States, the Great Emancipator, the really tall guy with the stovepipe hat -- maintains his hold on this nation's hearts and minds.
Even as we prepare to celebrate the 183rd anniversary of his birth Feb. 12, what everyone may not realize is that he's also something of a cottage industry, responsible for a goodly number of tourist sites in West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.
In fact, no American's life has been so relentlessly preserved for posterity. You can visit where his mother was born, where his grandfather was killed and where his wife was raised -- not to mention where Lincoln himself was born, where he grew up, where he practiced law, where he lived with his family and where he was laid to rest after being felled by an assassin's bullet.
To really do it right, to trace Lincoln's path from beginning to end and really get a feel for the man, you need a dependable car, a pile of good road maps and about two weeks.
The following itinerary may seem pretty exhaustive, but it isn't. Especially in Illinois, it's hard to move without stubbing your toe on some piece of Lincoln-related lore. Call the state's travel bureau, (800) 223-0121, and ask for a brochure describing the Lincoln Heritage Trail.
This tour includes most of the hot spots, however. The place to start is in Mineral County, W.Va., about 175 miles from Baltimore:
The Nancy Hanks Farm, located south of the town of Antioch, preserves the site where Lincoln's mother was born in 1782. She married Thomas Lincoln in 1806.
The actual home where Nancy Hanks was born is long gone (a tablet placed by the Nancy Hanks Association in 1933 marks its location), but a reconstructed cabin at the site, along with the surrounding countryside, provides a hint of what life was like when the future Mrs. Lincoln was born.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House, at 578 W. Main St. in Lexington, is advertised as "The first shrine restored in America to honor a first lady." Her father, attorney Robert Todd, moved the family into this elegant brick home in 1826.
An estate sale inventory from 1849 helped restorers obtain original furnishings and period pieces. In a second-floor bedroom is a bed used by President and Mrs. Lincoln -- a bequest from Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith (1904-1985), the president's great-grandson and last surviving direct descendant.
Information: (606) 233-9999.
Lincoln Homestead State Park, near Springfield, includes a replica of the log house in which Lincoln's grandmother, Bersheba, raised her family; the original home of Richard Berry Sr., moved here from about one mile away, in which Thomas Lincoln proposed to Nancy Hanks (a copy of their marriage certificate is displayed); and a replica of the blacksmith and carpenter shop in which Thomas Lincoln learned his trade (several pieces of his handiwork are preserved at the park).
The president's grandfather, Abraham, settled on a 100-acre tract of land in central Kentucky in 1781 or 1782. In May 1786, Captain Lincoln -- he had served in the Revolutionary War -- and his three sons were attacked by Indians. The elder Lincoln was killed; his youngest son, Thomas, was saved from a similar fate by his older brother, Mordecai, who shot and killed an approaching Indian.
The Lincoln family remained here until 1803, when Thomas Lincoln purchased a farm in nearby Hardin County. He married Nancy Hanks in 1806; when their first son was born in 1809, Thomas Lincoln honored his father by naming him Abraham.
Information: (606) 336-7461.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, three miles south of Hodgenville, encompasses the Sinking Spring Farm, on which Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809. The spring is still there. So too, perhaps, is the log cabin birthplace of our 16th president -- although park administrators admit it's impossible to say for sure (they stress, however, that it probably contains at least some of the logs used in the original cabin).
The cabin preserved inside the granite and marble memorial building was moved from this site in 1860 -- almost 50 years after Thomas Lincoln sold the place -- to a nearby farm. The cabin and Sinking Spring Farm were purchased by a New York businessman in 1894. Although at first brought back to its original site, the cabin was soon dismantled and exhibited throughout the country.
Around the turn of the century, Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan and others purchased the farm and cabin, raised $350,000 to construct an impressive neo-classical building to house the simple log structure, and opened it to the public in 1911.