Lincoln family corner cabinet hidden for years in Southern Indiana

O. M. G. — I may never wash my left hand again (although since I’m a lefty and hold my fork in that hand I probably should).
Why this blatant disregard for hygiene?
I didn’t get a chance to caress Leonardo DiCaprio’s cheek or anything like that.
This was even better!
I was able to touch an amazing corner cabinet built by Thomas Lincoln when he lived right here in Southern Indiana. According to local lore Abraham himself was the one who whittled the pegs holding the cabinet together.
This was not a piece commissioned by a customer. This was the actual cabinet the Lincolns used in their log cabin during their years in Indiana. And it has never left the area — or been on public display — until now.
Haaff poses next to the cabinet, still beautiful but showing wear. Note the gnawed spot atop the upper doors. - - Photos by Kathy Tretter
Haaff poses next to the cabinet, still beautiful but showing wear. Note the gnawed spot atop the upper doors. – – Photo by Kathy Tretter

This Saturday, June 29, Patronville resident and South Spencer High School industrial arts teacher Steve Haaff will (carefully) transport a cherry corner cabinet built by Thomas Lincoln, father of the 16th president, to the State Museum in Indianapolis.

There he will give a talk on Lincoln’s craftsmanship, showcasing this piece and its match (found in Newburgh) during a presentation that was already moved once because the original space could not accommodate all those who wanted tickets.

Lest you wonder why a high school teacher from Spencer County has been invited to speak, know this: Steve Haaff is THE acknowledged expert on Thomas Lincoln cabinetry. He has been contacted by the likes of the Antiques Road Show to authenticate various pieces.

How does he know?

An expert woodworker himself, Haaff spent years studying known Thomas Lincoln works. He made patterns from them, learned what tools Thomas worked with and avails himself of all the same sorts of clues any expert uses to authenticate antiques and art.

He has replicated a variety of Thomas Lincoln pieces using Lincoln’s own patterns, garnered from the known pieces.

An example: The skirting on the bottom of this cabinet is not symmetrical, but it exactly matches a design Thomas used on other cabinets.

Haaff acknowledges that in giving his talk he must first dispel a few rumors and misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Thomas Lincoln was completely illiterate.

It is commonly believed Thomas trained under one of the most talented cabinetmakers of his day, a man named Jessie Head. In addition to cabinetry, Head was a minister and in fact performed the nuptials uniting Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Head migrated to Kentucky from Baltimore, Maryland, where he faced stiff competition. He advertised in the Lexington newspaper for apprentices.

An apprenticeship was much like attending a technical vocational school would be today. The program lasted from four to seven years and apprentices were required to know how to read, write, and cipher to the rule of three.

So, while Thomas may not have been a scholar, he had to be able to keep a detailed ledger of his inventory including what he crafted and for whom. He also had to be able to measure.

Haaff has found other Federalist pieces made by Head’s proteges and he can see similarities, but much like Michelangelo, Vasari and other Renaissance artists, there are appreciable differences in each man’s work.

According to Haaff, Thomas Lincoln was a master craftsman. “His inlay work was incredible,” he enthuses.

: Steve Haaff points out the intricacies of the maple inlays on the cherry Thomas Lincoln cabinet. The hinges are original.
Steve Haaff points out the intricacies of the maple inlays on the cherry Thomas Lincoln cabinet. The hinges are original. –Photo by Kathy Tretter

The detail on this cabinet is proof of that. Crafted of cherry, with thin geometric inlays of maple, the back side was built from a secondary wood, in this case, poplar, all of this providing more evidence of the builder.

The cabinet has seen almost 200 years of wear, with rodent damage on the top of the upper doors. The lower doors are missing, but it is still incredibly beautiful.

Misconception 2: The Lincolns were poor.

It’s true, the family did not possess much cash, but then nobody did. People traded in commodities, such as produce, and used their skills to barter. Elizabeth Crawford traded a quilt for her Thomas Lincoln cabinet.

When the Lincolns left Indiana for Illinois, Thomas sold his furniture to James Gentry and his livestock and crops to David Turnham, including 100 head of hogs and 500 bushels of corn, no small amount by any standard.

And farming was more or less his sideline.

In addition, Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham, a well respected Kentuckian, proclaimed to Lincoln biographer William Herndon that Thomas Lincoln possessed the finest set of tools in the area (the area being Elizabethtown/Lexington, Kentucky and in those days, Lexington was known as the Athens of the West).

Dennis Hanks, who lived with the Lincolns, was also heard to say Lincoln owned the best tools in Spencer County.

This particular cabinet was made prior to 1820 and possibly was in the Lincoln home before Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s death in 1818.

How does Steve know?

Because the wood for this cabinet was planed with a whipsaw. After 1820 Thomas could avail himself of a water-powered sawmill, either the one on Pigeon Creek owned by John Jones (it was just a half mile from the Lincoln Homestead) or the one at Huffman Mill.

Also, the cabinet was put together with pegs, not nails (although the original hinges still grace the piece).

Why is this a clue as to its age?

According to Steve, Thomas Lincoln visited the Little Pigeon Creek community prior to bringing his wife and two children.

He traveled by flatboat to transport their household goods and his tools. The boat capsized in Rolling Fork River and he lost his entire barrel of nails, which he could not replace until a blacksmith settled near his new home. A cabinet similar to the one he later built was also lost. Although it floated to the top, he was unable to retrieve it single-handed. However, nearby residents did so and that cabinet is displayed in a museum in Harrogate, Tennessee.

He probably lost some of his tools in this debacle as well.

Still, Thomas was able to ply his craft in the new state. Had there been a second cabinetmaker, he would probably have moved on.

So how many cabinets and other pieces of furniture did he likely make?

Haaff says Thomas Lincoln’s ledger has been lost to posterity, but he was able to read the ledger of a Tennessee cabinetmaker who also farmed, crafted gun stocks and did some blacksmithing in his spare time. He, too, only had one son to assist him, and together during a 10 year period they built over 100 cabinets.

Many Thomas Lincoln pieces have been lost. The Crawfords told of making soap one day when the fire burned too low, so they broke up a rickety table built by their neighbor and fed the fire.

According to Steve, every piece Thomas made is unique, even if there are identifiers that unite his work.

Every cabin featured different ceiling heights and every customer had to work within his budget to pay for the piece.

Haaff equates this to the automotive industry. He may want to own a Jaguar or Corvette but buys what his budget allows.

Some of Lincoln’s customers could probably afford nicer pieces with greater detail and the price would be based on how many hours he put into it.

This particular piece would have cost a fortune due to the inlays.

That the provenance can be traced also makes it unique. The cabinet stayed within a mile of the Lincoln cabin until the 1930s and remains in the possession of James Gentry’s descendants.

Nancy, or if not her then Thomas’s second wife, Sally Bush Johnston Lincoln, probably kept china in it.

Abraham most likely whittled most of the pegs for his father’s projects. According to Dennis Hanks, Thomas made Nancy’s coffin from a log left over from building their cabin, and Abe whittled the pegs. This was confirmed by Allen Brooner, although in his version of the tale, Thomas cut down a tree for the coffin.

Haaff says he has been able to trace Thomas Lincoln’s progression as an artist (for that is indeed what he was), and also his digression. By the time the Lincolns left Indiana in 1830, his health had deteriorated considerably. In 1828 he was blind in one eye and losing sight in the other. One needs to be able to see to craft such intricacies.

And yet …. and yet … his work tells the tale of a man who historians can’t seem to get quite right. He, too was a master storyteller, something he surely passed on to his son.

He, too, left something, actually many somethings, for posterity, for as Steve Haaff claims, pointing to the well worn corner cabinet, “They can write all they want about Thomas Lincoln, but I have Thomas Lincoln’s book right here.”

If you plan to go:

WHAT: The Abraham Lincoln Lecture Series at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis

WHO: Steve Haaff will present his research into the carpentry work of Thomas Lincoln, Abraham’s father. Haaff will discuss Thomas’ techniques and patterns, and will have some reproduction pieces on view for guests, as well as two originals, including the family cabinet discussed here and its mate, owned by the Lutz family of Newburgh.

WHEN: This Saturday, June 29 from 2 to 4 p.m.

COST: $3 for members and $7 per non-member