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Lake Forest Country Places: Ragdale Lincoln Cabin

Lake Forest Country Places XXV:

The “Lincoln” Cabin at “Ragdale”

One of a series of articles by Arthur Miller, Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections at Lake Forest College, originally published in the Lake Forest Journal, 1994-1997; some have been replaced or updated.

“An old Quaker strain had lasted in him; he inherited some natural habit of living plainly.”
— Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, II, 294.

The Shaw family compound at “Ragdale,” much of which now is owned by the City of Lake Forest and by the Lake Forest Open Lands Association, includes not only the oldest existing house in town, the 1838 Swanton brick, Greek-Revival farmhouse which now is a part of the Barnhouse owned by the City (described in this series, no. 4 in the Journal issue for Nov. 1994). The compound also includes the 1820s log cabin which at the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress was billed as “Abe Lincoln’s Indiana Home.” This cabin is the only “Ragdale”-compound structure still held by Shaw descendants; privately-owned by Ragdale Foundation founder Alice Judson Hayes [Hayes died in 2006 and, in February 2012, the cabin—still in private hands—belongs with the neighboring property to the north, originally “North Ragdale,” the 1938 home of Evelyn Shaw McCutcheon now owned by Mrs. Hart], it is partially visible both from the “Ragdale” garden, west of the Barnhouse, and also from Open Lands property south and west of the cabin. Very likely the oldest structure in town, this relic — which began its life in Lake Forest in the mid-1930s as a country-place ancillary structure — is rich in early-twentieth-century “simple-life-movement” heritage. The last two columns in this series have been devoted to Mayflower-Road district and Lake-Road district estates in the classic manner, so this piece in honor of Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 also reflects and celebrates the diversity of the local country-place phenomenon.

Lincoln arrived in Indiana from Kentucky in 1816, at the age of seven, and lived there on Little Pigeon Creek not far from the Ohio River until just after his twenty-first birthday in February of 1830, when the family set out for Illinois. According to Alice Hayes, it is from the community where Lincoln grew to manhood that the “Ragdale” cabin originated, probably from the period when Lincoln was present, and for the Exposition was cut to fit the dimensions known for the Lincoln cabin. In 1817, when he was nine, the young Lincoln helped cut trees for the family’s own log cabin, to replace the nearby pole-shed where the small family still “was cooking, eating, and sleeping,” according to Lincoln biographer, major poet and Shaw family friend Carl Sandburg in his Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (Harcourt, Brace, 1926; I, 37). The humble character of the Lincolns’ state on first arriving in southern Indiana is described in detail by Sandburg: concerning “Tom Lincoln, his wife, boy, and girl…. Naked they had come into the world; almost naked they came to Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana” (p. 31). The 1817 log house had four enclosed sides and a stick chimney plastered with clay. The log fire inside provided the light, since there were no windows cut in the walls. The door was “a hole cut to stoop through.” Beds were poles cleated into the corners of the cabin, and there was a ladder to a loft above, where Abe slept — sometimes with snow coming through the roof to land on his “bearskin cover.” The puncheon style (logs finished on the top only) table and stools completed the furnishings.

Sandburg’s point, of course, is that from this crude beginning came one of this nation’s greatest leaders, perhaps its single greatest. Lincoln rose from his unpromising start to become the savior of his nation through encouragement from his nurturing and sympathetic step-mother, presumably, and through native character inherited from a line of Lincolns. These had fought, Sandburg begins his saga by reporting, in the Revolutionary war period — from the Virginia militia Captain Abraham Lincoln who was the President’s grandfather to an Amos Lincoln who, disguised as a Native American, took part in the Boston Tea Party in pre Revolutionary Massachusetts. Also, Lincoln’s upwardly-mobile wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, encouraged her husband who in the 1840s and 1850s was an itinerant central-Illinois attorney, active in politics but often without great ambition.

But always Lincoln was very sensitive to the equal opportunity which had enabled him to improve dramatically his own condition. Lincoln was moved, deeply, both by the plights of African-Americans who were kept down by their state of bondage and also by the strivings of common people, native-born and immigrant, in the north’s burgeoning rural and industrial regions. His eloquence, the vehicle of his rise to the White House, developed slowly from the beginnings of his often lackluster legal and political careers in the 1830s and 1840s to the great confrontations with Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 Senate race and then the contest for the presidency in 1860. Sandburg chronicles how Lincoln’s hard youth, lack of luxuries and advantages, and professional ups and downs led to a rich sense of humor especially toward himself, an awareness of the dangers of pride, a steadiness of purpose, and strong physical and mental capacities. Writing in the midst of the giddy 1920s Sandburg found in Lincoln the best of America — sprung from simple, earnest roots.

Sandburg’s book was published in 1926 and became a sensation just as the Coolidge-era economy was overheating and heading toward the Crash of 1929-33. Through the next several decades and beyond Sandburg’s Lincoln would stand as a powerful symbol of the nation’s underlying vein of strength rooted in the equal opportunity which enabled new leaders to emerge and save the larger society — not the Franklin Roosevelts only, but also the Harry Trumans, Dwight Eisenhowers, Martin Luther King, Jrs., and — closer to home and to “Ragdale” — the Gwendolyn Brookses. Lincoln anchored and strengthened the Jeffersonian notion of equality, from the 1776 Declaration, in his “Gettysburg Address” and elsewhere. The log cabin’s symbolism for this fundamental and defining American strength of equal opportunity was underscored for a new, vitally-important generation by Sandburg’s Lincoln.

The interest in Lincoln and the simplicity he represents earlier in the 20th century was considerable, with the 1909 centennial celebrations especially in Illinois, with William Randolph Hearst’s effort around 1920 to save and restore Lincoln’s New Salem village near Springfield, and the general concern especially among Puritan descendants in the 1920s that the good times bred the seeds of their own destruction.

The simple-life movement was a basic theme of American life from the first landings of the Puritans in 1620. This is chronicled well in David E. Shi’s 1986 Oxford U. Press study entitled The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Shi reviews the Puritan and Quaker ethics, nineteenth-century republicanism and domesticity (out of which Lake Forest was founded), and the Progressive-Era simplicity behind Shaw’s 1897 “Ragdale” house before the 1920s and 1930s movements which focussed on log cabins among other things. Also, earlier there had been Scouting’s back-to-the-country movements for city and suburban children.

So there was much precedent for the movement to log cabins after Sandburg’s Lincoln came out in 1926. Over the next decade there would be a number of articles in magazines about how to build a cabin, in American Home and others. The power of the movement, though, is seen graphically in Chilson D. Aldrich’s The Real Log Cabin (Macmillan, 1928; 278 pp.; at Lake Forest Library). Aldrich, an architect, “humbly dedicated” his book to “The beloved man of history, Abraham Lincoln, who has enshrined the log cabin in the hearts of the people.”

The “Ragdale” cabin was not unique in the area. On the banks of the Des Plaines there developed in the late 1920s a little colony of log cabins. These now can be seen at the Ryerson Woods Nature Preserve on Riverwoods Road south of Rt. 22. The best is the one designed for the Edward Ryerson, Jr. family in 1928 by Lake Forest architect Stanley Anderson, according to the Anderson firm’s job book supplied to the Lake Forest College library by Paul Bergmann of Lake Bluff. This handsome, inviting cabin’s exterior can be enjoyed along the trail by the river: its sturdy stone fireplace, its snug porch, and artful though simple details. Nearby is the Hermon Dunlap and Ellen Thorne Smith cabin, now adapted for use as an historical display of Des Plaines River heritage, a subject to which Mr. Smith, a Lake Forest resident, devoted scholarly attention, writing and distributing privately in 1940 a little book — now a rarity. Another cabin, according to historian Susan Benjamin’s recent application for inclusion of Ryerson Woods on the National Register of Historic Places, was the retreat of the artist Ivan L. Albright and his wife Josephine Patterson Albright. Albright’s work is on display this winter at the Art Institute and Mrs. Albright was the daughter of Joseph Medill Patterson and the great grand-daughter of Joseph Medill, who was both the Civil-War-era publisher of the Chicago Tribune (this year celebrating its sesquicentennial) and a also a key early supporter of Lincoln’s candidacy for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1860. 

So the Lincoln cabin appeared at “Ragdale” in the mid-1930s within a cultural context of great interest. This addition to the compound, too, followed the simple-life theme of the main “Ragdale” house, an English Arts & Crafts, simple-life informal alternative in 1897 (“Ragdale” is celebrating its centennial this year) to the new neo-classical mansions then starting to appear. The cabin fit beautifully, too, the needs and simplicity of the new buyer (for one-hundred dollars), Sylvia Shaw Judson. A sculptor and then busy mother (this year also is the centennial of her birth), she had the cabin adapted — according to Ragdale: A History and Guide — as a summer studio for her use: the loft was reduced by half and a north-facing sky-light was added. She used this space until her year ’round Meadow Studio (demolished, replaced ca. 2010) was built in the early 1940s. Also, the cabin was readied as a weekend place by a little addition with two small bedrooms and a bath — the latter including the fan-dancer Sally Rand’s dressing-room plumbing also bought in the sale following the 1933-34 Century of Progress. Though the addition was replaced in 1986, vestiges of Sally Rand’s bathroom are said to remain. In the 1950s, the History and Guide recounts, “after Sylvia became a Quaker, the cabin was used briefly as a Meeting House.” This preceded the current Meeting House’s construction on the southwest corner of Old Elm and Ridge Roads. Perhaps Judson’s most important sculpture is her seated Quaker martyr, “Mary Dyer,” in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse on Boston Common. When Sylvia’s daughter Alice donated “Ragdale” to the City in 1986 she retained the cabin for a summer and weekend retreat for her and her husband, Albert Hayes and their children, grandchildren, and friends.

The Lincoln cabin can be seen perhaps best coming up from Open Lands’ Shaw Prairie, a pleasant stroll from the access point at the west end of Laurel Avenue. Few places in the Chicago region can give a better sense of the midwestern prairie of Lincoln’s youth than the virgin prairie and restored meadowland west of this cabin. Open Lands property is accessible to members (there is a nominal annual dues charge) and even on a daily basis by registering at the Public Safety Building and paying a $1.00 day-access fee. A trail map is provided there, to guide visitors from the Laurel Avenue entrance to the Shaw Prairie. Also, the “Ragdale” garden adjacent to the cabin will be a stop on the semi-monthly tours of “Ragdale” which will begin in the warmer months; call the Ragdale Foundation at 234-l063 for information and reservations for these excellent, popular tours.

Arthur Miller
January 14, 1997; rev. February 21, 2012