THE NILE OF KENTUCKY
The Nolin River.
It is like the Nile, if you follow the analogy. With its own old kingdoms running along its geography.
The lower Nolin has its ancient monuments, Mammoth Cave and Dismal Rock, and it has its own cliff-edged lake, like the one that they created in Egypt.
If you are willing to follow my logic, Hodgenville could be the Luxor of the upper Nolin River Valley. For it has temples to modern American Pharaohs, statues, monuments, and museums to remember the deeds of great people.
And, like the deserts aside the Nile, to reach Hodgenville, you would have to cross the broad swath of barrens, where you would be clearly seen by any defenders. It is a land whose defensive barrier to the north is a long length of cliffs [Muldraugh Hill] and double water entrenchments [the Beech and Rolling Forks of Salt River Basin]. Abraham Lincoln was born and raised round here. A poetic home place to our American mythology.
Just to ensure protection of this rich northern kingdom, the people built a huge fort on a cliff overlooking the river, where they store their ammunition and golden bullion. And in the translations of ancient times, extracted by the local scribe, Gary Kempf, you can read about the forgotten ruins of Grahampton [Otter Creek], Stithton [in the center of Fort Knox proper], and Pitts Point [destroyed by the practice of warfare at the coming together of the Rolling Fork with its parent Salt River]. And beyond these reaches exist mythical cities such as Lystra, which was never actually located.
Welcome to LaRue County and its valleys of wonder!
Migrations of important peoples have passed through these barren plains and river terraces. Even more, if you consider the Buffalo traces [there is a town here by that name], ancient Native American places [isn’t that a conspicuous mound just outside of the town center of Hodgenville?], Long Hunter trails [including Squire Boone, brother of Daniel], Phillips Fort immigrants [hiding from the ones already here], and three that I will discuss in more detail later. The Thomas and Nancy Lincoln Family; the Munfordville Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner; and Mrs. Wiggs on her way to the Cabbage Patch [not Alice Hegan Rice, but the model for her novels, Mary A. Thomas (Compton) Bass!].
Look at the terrain view on your smart phone map reader. Have you noticed that this spread of land is almost fully drained by the headwaters of the Nolin River? A well-defined stage on which all this drama will play.
Let’s begin with Abraham Lincoln, who was born just beyond Hodgen’s Mill in 1809 [Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park]. But he left that town about the same time that his church [South Fork Baptist Church] split over slavery. Lincoln’s family traveled up the North Fork of the Nolin River to the headwaters of Knob Creek, where his family settled down deep within its recesses [Abraham Lincoln’s Boyhood Home]. Where he lost a young brother, who was buried at the slavery-opposed church they now attended [Little Mount Baptist Church]. Under a tiny stone on which two letters were carved, “T” and “L.” Abraham Lincoln’s father was an industrious tradesman [journeyman carpenter]. But he either had bad luck, bad finances, or bad judgment, when it came to land to settle upon. He couldn’t afford the best and, in Kentucky, seemed to be attracted to marginal opportunities. Ones often with clouded legal title that soon enough became the subject of litigation reality. So he left Kentucky. And probably not just because of slavery, but for his own dreams of another Garden of Eden.
So Thomas and his family left, with a wagon, in 1816. Abraham was only seven years old. The route they took might surprise you, as it did me. So pop up that terrain view map and take a look again. We’re not going down to the river and New Haven, or back up to Hodgenville on the plateau above. We are going sideways over to Roanoke on the way to visit Abraham’s grandmother, Bathsheba, also living on poor land bought by his father [on Mill Creek, now within the Fort Knox boundary].
Drive downhill along Knob Creek through Athertonville, where Abraham had his only formal schooling [about one year, he later claimed], and turn left up the Cissal Hill Road. Go in winter and you will see some spectacular views of the Salt River Valley below.
You are now on Cecil Ridge. It has its own intermediate level of linear ground. Like the one you might rest on, climbing back up Arizona’s Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail. Keep going on to Roanoke, and stop in at F & F Tack, Feed, and Deli. I hear their breakfast is terrific!
Now take the road south toward Hodgenville, but turn back toward where you started. You can pass by an old stone house that Lincoln once wrote about [Joseph Kirkpatrick house]. It may be the only one he would recognize, today, from his youthful experience!
U. S. Highway 31 East [Old Cumberland Highway] runs through Hodgenville, but let’s go over to U. S. Highway 31 West [Old Louisville and Nashville Turnpike], which is now paralleled by Interstate 65. Let’s go to Sonora. Try lunch at the Brooks General Store & Cafe [don’t worry, it’s still open in there!].
Sonora is important to this story because the Old Louisville and Nashville Turnpike is the route that Confederate General Braxton Bragg used heading north during the 1862 invasion of Kentucky. One of his wings was commanded by General Simon Bolivar Buckner of Munfordville. His men turned east at Sonora, following along the river on the road to Hodgenville [and passing by the birthplace of Mrs. Wiggs on the way!]. He marched his troops past that old stone house to the cliff edge that Lincoln walked over as a boy. Buckner would camp his men at a road junction called White City. The next day, he moved his men down Knob Creek, past Lincoln’s boyhood place.
Did he know that the man he was fighting was raised there? Bragg’s army was in a hurry, being chased by many Union armies. But Bragg’s forces would turn and fight at Perryville, before escaping through the Cumberland Gap. You drive along multiple lines of history when you move through LaRue County!
Now to Mrs. Wiggs and her “Cabbage Patch.” Both person and place existed in 1901 when Alice Hegan Rice [a native of Shelbyville, Kentucky] began ministering to poor German immigrants and African-Americans living in the slum along 7th Street in Louisville. She was working in what was then known as the “Cabbage Patch” District [backyard urban gardeners].
There, Alice met a laundry woman with five children. Her name was Mary A. Thomas (Compton) Bass, and both of her husbands had died. Alice was so struck by her humility, positive disposition, and practical cheerfulness that she modeled a book she was writing after that woman. It was entitled, “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.” The rest is literary history!
There is a circle in downtown Hodgenville, where stands a statue of Lincoln seated. It was sculpted by Adolph Weinman [who also did the Lincoln statue at his birthplace, and the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda (he was also responsible for the image on the Liberty Dime)].
Why do I think of the Colossi of Memnon sitting alone before the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Amenhotep III across from Luxor? There is even writing on the back of Lincoln seated, just like on those sitting figures in Egypt!
The Lincoln Museum may not be as well known as the one in Cairo. But it is just as famous right here in Hodgenville, ready to honor the President it faces. In the Lincoln Museum, you will learn of the boy that lived here, and how he developed into the man in bronze seated outside.
And while you are in the museum, take note of another local legend. His name is Sherrill Williams and, if you can, ask him to drive you around these, his native lands. But I wish to close out this essay with another of his talents. That of an Artist. For, in the museum, you will find a painting [and he has done many] of the town of Hodgenville in 1886.
It is based on a sketch published in the Century Magazine. The sketch was part of John G. Nicolay’s and John Hay’s [Lincoln’s private secretaries] history of the President they served 20 years before.
Go back to the bridge over the Nolin River and take a look upstream. Then, look at the painting again. What you see is Hodgen’s Mill, with its house and commercial buildings to the side. A dam has been built across the river backing up the water into a pond. Look more closely now. It is still there for you to remember, as Lincoln might.
Now squint a little as you look again at the painting. Open your mind. Ride back in time to that historic river. Do you not see a little of the wonder found by Karl Richard Lepsius [the German Champollion] when he visited the ancient Temple of Karnak at Luxor on the Nile. The one next to a sacred lake, just like the one backed up in Hodgenville!
Imagination is great. Kentucky’s Nolin River Country is even better!