Living Like LincolnJune 21, 2019
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Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump
Bob Zimmerman cares for the horses, the cows, the chickens. He makes the period clothing and the candles. He spins the wool. He plows the fields, orders the seeds and plants the oats, the potatoes, the corn.
He labors over the research, constantly fact-checking with books and journals and digging for new information that makes his workplace more and more true to the early life of America’s 16th president.
You see, when he’s at work, Bob has lived like Abraham Lincoln for about a quarter of a century. For roughly a decade, Bob, 64, has served as the leader of the Lincoln Living Historical Farm at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. The farm is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
With a sharp wit and sense of humor, Bob has preserved a lost chapter of history on the 20 acre slice of land. Armed with his passion for the past, he’s kept it alive in a very particular way.
He uses and teaches skills that our ancestors needed every day just to survive. Much like Lincoln’s formative years, these skills are things that have been forgotten with time. They are traditional artforms and crafts that have slipped through the cracks as the world constantly reinvents itself and pushes further and further away from its roots.
When talking about his life and his career, Bob often explores tangents and memories before tying those seemingly unrelated thoughts into the topic at hand. His mind is brimming with information, and it’s not uncommon for him to quiz people he’s talking to about national history and local nature, as he turns conversations into learning moments.
But when asked why he’s stayed at the historical farm for so long, his response is clear. He likes what he does here. And it’s simply not done enough these days.
“Keeping the old things somewhat alive, even though it seems like history is starting to lose its place, even in schools, it seems like,” Bob said of why he likes his work. “They’re not teaching as much of it, or not as far back.”
Many people know that Lincoln was born in Kentucky. Even more know about his life in Illinois and beyond. But not everyone knows that between the ages of 7 and 21 — arguably the most impressionable time in a young man’s life — Abe lived in Indiana.
According to information on the National Park Service’s website, Lincoln helped carve his family’s farm and log cabin home out of the wilderness during those years. He also began to explore the world of books and knowledge, and he experienced both adventure and deep personal loss in the Hoosier State.
The death of his mother in 1818 and his beloved sister, Sarah, 10 years later “left deep emotional scars. But all those experiences helped make him into the man that he became,” the National Parks Service’s website reads.
Bob was born and raised in Southeast Ohio. He worked several jobs at national parks before arriving in Lincoln City, answering questions at an information desk at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which is located in northern Tennessee, and later holding jobs at Mammoth Cave National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
When visitors come to the Lincoln site, they see him and his colleagues working and creating an exact replica of the Lincolns’ Indiana home, all the way down to the materials they used to construct the buildings and the seeds they planted in the fields and gardens. That accuracy is based on consistent, repetitive checking of the recreation created at the national home site against various records of the time.
“History, you have to keep revisiting,” Bob said. “Because you keep coming up with different answers sometimes. So, what you read the first time might not really be right. So, you read a second one. Well, now that ain’t right. So, you gotta read the third one, and hopefully after three or four, you figure out what’s possibly the best solution.”
As the lead ranger of the farm, Bob is responsible for all of its operations. He works with all the animals and determines how and when to plant all the crops. Interacting with guests and visitors is also part of his duties. Some come in from just down the road. Others journey in from across the country.
“We use the farm as an interpretive tool to help us tell the Lincoln Indiana story,” said Mike Capps, the chief of interpretation and resource management at the national memorial. “It’s kind of a three-dimensional-type thing that people can see, and in some cases touch and sense more so than like the museum, where they’re reading things, or even a movie, where they’re just sitting and listening to the movie.
“All those things have a place in our overall effort to tell the story, and they all impart important parts of this story,” he added. “But the farm is kind of a unique opportunity for the visitors to become a little bit more engaged with the story, and with the history. And it’s extremely popular.”
Bob and his staff offer a hands-on experience for those guests. Some of the demonstrations are planned and organized, and others can happen spontaneously after Bob and volunteers get to talking with interested visitors.
He has taught some how to plow a field on a machine pulled by two horses, for example, and then turned them loose on plots of land. He’s instructed kids how to shear sheep, letting them cut wool off their tiny bodies.
“It’s all educational,” Bob said of his work. “Whether we’re demonstrating or letting them participate.”
He stresses that he can’t do his job alone. Bob relies on his team of volunteers to maintain the living, breathing recreation of Lincoln’s boyhood home. Some are college kids on summer break. Others are adults who want to get away and spend time outdoors.
Doris Pfaff is one of a handful who consistently donate their time to the farm. She lives just inside Perry County with her husband, John — who is also a regular volunteer — and said the knowledge and inspiration Bob brings to the memorial is a big reason why she keeps coming back. She’s told people she was born in the wrong time period.
“You’ve gotta understand where you’re coming from to know where you’re headed,” said Doris, who has been involved at the site for a little more than five years. “And to be able to use the tools that our ancestors did gives you a greater appreciation for what they had went through to get us to where we are today. It’s just very rewarding to be able to do all these old-time jobs.”
Capps explained that in the past, more paid employees were kept on the farm staff. But due to budget constraints, a big chunk of the facility’s work and demonstrations are now led by volunteers.
Doris, for example, spends three days a week year-round at the farm, where she cleans the log cabin for guests, cooks, gardens, works with the chickens and sheep, and hand-knits quilts. The variety of her work keeps it engaging.
“It’s one of those things where there’s not just one particular thing,” Doris said. “When you come on to the farm up there, you learn to do a little bit of everything.”
While visitors might not follow the staff’s methods, Bob wants them to understand there is immense value in knowing how to forge your own life.
“In the future, the finest art will be of making a living off a small piece of ground,” Bob said, paraphrasing a quote by Abraham Lincoln. “In other words, I think the individual will realize that in the future, people that garden at home are gonna be the better off.”
Bob is growing older, and he is closer to the end of his time at the Lincoln City memorial than he is to the beginning. When he leaves, he won’t miss the farmwork. He does much of that same work on his own at his nearby home, where he lives with his wife, Connie. There, he has the freedom to implement more modern methods in his labor.
What Bob will miss are the visitors, and the platform the park gives him to share a piece of the past.
“He has the kind of knowledge and experience for doing that particular kind of work, which can be a little hard to come by sometimes,” Capps said of Bob. “I’ve been fortunate in having him to kind of keep the farm operation coming along as well as it has all these years.”
When Bob does retire, finding a replacement who has his skill set will be a difficult task.
“We learn so much from him,” Doris said. “When you can learn things from what you’re doing, it just makes it a whole lot more interesting. The farm will not ever be the same without Bob.”
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