The Feb. 9 revelation to the world of Abraham Lincoln’s mallet kept hidden in Spencer County, Indiana, is a story of family friendships forged on the frontier, an unbelievable secret, revered and handed down for five generations, a cast of characters worthy of a screenplay, and a pole barn in Richland, Indiana.
On that day, three days before Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, Abe Lincoln’s mallet, inlaid with his initials and dated 1829, was unveiled by Gov. Mike Pence and Tom King, president and CEO of the Indiana State Museum.
Twenty-four days earlier, on Jan. 16, Indiana State Museum administrators and curators Susannah Koerber, Beth Van Why, and R. Dale Ogden had traveled to Spencer County to the Richland, Indiana, home of Tom and Vicki Brauns, where nearly 30 people gathered in Brauns’ appliance repair business office, known as the “Rock Shop.”
In addition to the museum representatives and the Brauns, the group included State Auditor Suzanne Crouch; retired Spencer County school teacher and renowned Thomas Lincoln furniture expert Steve Haaff and his wife Becky; Steve Sisley, long-time president of the Spencer County Historical Society, and his wife Pam; Charlie Finecy, executive director of Lincoln Pioneer Village (a student of Abe Lincoln history since childhood); Michael and Kathleen Crews (Michael is a naturalist at Lincoln State Park; Kathleen is a longtime Lincoln enthusiast); and Keith Carter and his wife Patricia of Newburgh, Indiana. Carter is co-owner of the Lincoln mallet, with his sister, Andrea Carter Solis of Saline, Michigan, who was unable to attend the meeting in Richland. Crouch, who knew the Brauns from her work in the Indiana House of Representatives, had been contacted by Tom Brauns to help open the door to the Indiana State Museum and the media, should the interest in revealing the Lincoln mallet be mutual. Crouch had placed a call to officials at the Indiana State Museum on Nov. 9 to query its interest in the artifact.
In the corner of the room, on a small table with a red-checkered tablecloth, was a box, and in the box was the reason the group had gathered. The Abraham Lincoln Mallet Committee had met to present Dale Ogden, Indiana State Museum chief curator of cultural history, and Susannah Koerber, senior vice president of collections and interpretation, what had become known as “The Abraham Lincoln Mallet Project.”
“We visited for four or five hours,” says Ogden. “They all brought in covered dishes and we ate and talked.” The mallet was brought out of the plastic box and guests had the opportunity to hold it and take pictures with it.
State Auditor Crouch recalls, “It was very exciting. It is one of the highlights of my public service. Not just to be a part of it, but to be able to hold it. Something that Lincoln made and held; it was surreal.”
When it was time for the group of Lincoln experts to present their research on the Lincoln mallet, Haaff, a native of Spencer County and also a Carter family cousin, was chosen from among the group to address the curators; his work was well known to the Indiana State Museum as he had helped authenticate two Thomas Lincoln cabinets, one owned by the museum and the other on loan.
Haaff spoke from his experience and presented the background: “Several years before his death in 1987, Hubert Luther Carter took his son William Donald ‘Donnie’ Carter downstairs into his basement in Richland, Indiana, and showed him a mallet dated 1829 that he had hidden. Hubert stated that Abraham Lincoln had given it to his grandfather, Barnabus C. Carter Jr., and it was kept hidden for safe keeping because his family considered it to be a treasured family heirloom. He told Donnie that it would be his possession after his death. Donnie and his wife Mary Kathryn displayed this mallet next to their fireplace for several years. When he moved from Reo to Newburgh, Indiana, Don kept it hidden for safe keeping. Don’s son Keith has had the mallet for the last four and a half years after Don moved from his apartment into a nursing home before his death on March 3, 2015. After his father’s death, Keith told his cousin Tom Brauns about the heirloom and he formed this committee to authenticate the mallet.”
The group showed the museum officials the volume of material they had generated in their research: thick binders full of detailed information on the lineage of the Carter and Lincoln families, Spencer County property plats dating to 1815, and cultural information on the county and its early settlers.
Ogden says that as the presentation concluded, “Tom looked at Keith; Steve looked at me, and the decision was made to transport the mallet to Indianapolis to loan to the Indiana State Museum for one year.
“We wanted to be sure they, the family, was as comfortable with us as possible,” says Ogden. “Steve and Tom had laid the groundwork for us, but of course, there was some opinion that it should stay in Spencer County. But the overriding thought was, that if the committee really wanted people to know about it, it should go to the state’s media center, and that would be Indianapolis.”
Ogden says he never doubted the mallet’s authenticity, even from the first phone call.
“Mr. Lincoln didn’t hand it to me personally,” says Ogden, “but I’d put my reputation on its authenticity.”
Young Abe Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. The 16th president, widely regarded as America’s greatest president given the crisis of the Civil War that confronted the nation in 1861, spent one-quarter of his life in the Hoosier state. His parents, Tom and Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln, moved to the Spencer County area in Southern Indiana in 1816, the year of Indiana’s statehood. Abraham Lincoln is said to have explained that his family’s move from Kentucky to Indiana was partly on account of slavery (which had been excluded in Indiana by the Northwest Ordinance) and partly due to Kentucky’s chaotic land laws and title system. The Lincolns remained in Indiana until 1830, when fearing a milk sickness outbreak along the Ohio River, the family moved west to Southern Illinois, another non-slaveholding state.
Growing Up With Lincoln
Andrea Carter Solis, now of Saline, Michigan, where she serves as vice president, treasury management officer for Old National Bank, says the story of how her family came to own the mallet that Abraham Lincoln made and later gifted to her ancestor is “a pretty basic story.”
“It has been passed down from generations, hidden by my grandfathers. My grandfather had it in the rafters in the basement. No one ever thought about bringing it out or making it public,” says Solis, who moved with her husband Andy in 2014 from Newburgh to Saline, for an opportunity with Old National Bank.
Interviewed by phone, Solis explained that she and her brother Keith, an employee at Red Spot Paint & Varnish Co. did not want to be in the limelight with the mallet, but that after their father’s death, they began to think the mallet should be authenticated and shown to the world. Together they decided to let their cousin, Tom Brauns, with experience in ancestry, work to establish the mallet’s authenticity. Brauns, who would serve as chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Mallet Committee, took the lead and began meeting with the Lincoln experts he asked to join the project.
“Over the years,” says Solis, “the mallet became part of the family. We always knew it was real.” During the years she was growing up (18 years separate Solis and her brother Carter in age), the mallet was displayed on the fireplace hearth in the family’s Reo, Indiana, home. When the international news broke on the revelation of the mallet (news reached Europe, Japan, and China), Solis heard right away from a childhood friend who called to ask, “Is that the mallet? I have pictures of us in front of your fireplace with the mallet in them.”
Solis recalls she was allowed to take the mallet to school when she was about 5 years old. “I remember trying to be very careful with it and one of my parents being very nervous about me taking it.”
While her parents Don and Mary Kathryn displayed the mallet, they were far from loose-lipped. Visitors to the home likely thought the artifact was a simple tool prized by primitive antique collectors. “My parents and I talked about the mallet – how we might get it authenticated. I did a bit of online research with the Smithsonian, but as you know, people get busy, and we did not start that process.”
Brauns reports that Carter has conveyed to him that Don would have liked to have brought out the mallet, but his desire to honor his father Hubert’s request for secrecy likely prevented him from doing that. Five generations of Carters had been told by their ancestors that it was a secret to keep within the family.
“I wish my parents were here to enjoy the world’s reaction to the mallet,” says Solis. “They would have loved to be involved in this process.”
At the March 6, 2015, visitation for Don at the Boultinghouse Funeral home in Rockport, Indiana, Carter talked with his cousin Brauns. The extended family was close and Brauns had been at the funeral home with his Carter cousins most of the evening.
“The crowd was slowing down and it was getting late,” Brauns recalls. “Keith then told me about the Lincoln mallet. At that point I was somewhere between shock and extreme excitement. We talked about it for awhile, and a few days later, after a service call in Newburgh, I stopped by to see the mallet.”
“Tommy was very excited,” Solis recalls hearing from her brother. Brauns, who previously has been awarded Historian of the Year by the Spencer County Historical Society, took the mallet with him and began making phone calls to the area Lincoln experts who would form the Abraham Lincoln Mallet Committee with the purpose of authenticating the mallet and researching ways to share it with the public during the state’s bicentennial year.
“If you know Keith and Pat,” says Brauns, “you would know that they just don’t make up stories. I knew it was old and I knew it was authentic.
“I knew all of the people I asked to serve on the committee,” says Brauns. “They all are personal friends of ours. Each person had a job to track down the trail of families that connected the Carters and the Lincolns. The families knew each other in Nelson and Hardin counties in Kentucky and followed each other to Southern Indiana.”
The Carter family came to Spencer County in 1815 followed by the Lincolns in 1816. “The families knew each other well prior to coming to Indiana having lived in the same neighborhood in Kentucky,” says Haaff. “In fact, many of the Lincoln neighbors were related to each other by blood or marriage.”
Haaff himself is a Carter cousin. His great-great grandfather Joseph Carter came to Indiana with his brother Barnabus C. Carter Jr. (to whom Lincoln gave the mallet) and settled on the Little Pigeon Creek about 15 miles from Gentryville. Their cousins, John and Thomas Carter, were the first Carters to settle in the area. When the Lincolns came a year later, they settled next to John and Thomas Carter.
“Little Pigeon Creek was an important waterway at that time for moving good form the northern part of Spencer County to the Ohio River. Anyone moving goods down the creek would have come into contact with the extended Carter family,” says Haaff. “The Lincoln/Carter connection can not be overstated.”
Tom and Vicki Brauns and the committee of experts met for nine months, one to two times per month, and divided up the research. “The Carters let us keep the mallet in our possession for the entire nine months of meetings and research,” says Brauns. “We can’t thank them enough for allowing us to follow through on this wonderful project and bring it to the world.
“We proved genealogy in the Carter family from Barnabus Carter on down to present day Carters,” says Brauns. “We provided maps of the Lincolns and Carters as neighbors. We have statements from the Carter family giving us the story of the mallet passed down from generation to generation.”
That oral history, as recounted by the Brauns from Keith, tells the story of Barnabus Carter Sr., a Revolutionary War veteran and Keith Carter and Andrea Solis’ great-great-great grandfather, who was a neighbor to the Lincoln Family until 1825 when the Carters moved to the Richland area in Spencer County, about 15 miles southwest of Gentryville, Indiana, where the Lincolns settled.
In 1829, the Lincolns and the Carters still kept in touch with each other. As the family lore goes, Abe Lincoln met Barnabus Carter in the county seat of Rockport and gave him as a gift the mallet that he made with his own hands, inlaid with the initials A.L. and the year 1829. The Lincolns were preparing to move to Illinois at the time and Abraham would no longer need the mallet. At age 21, the railsplitter, though he was not known by the campaign moniker until the 1860 presidential campaign, wouldn’t need his rail splitter for careers in surveying, the postal service, and as a lawyer.
Haaff says he completely believed the authenticity of the mallet from the moment he saw it. To authenticate the mallet, working with the committee, Haaff established provenance. “It falls right in line with what we know about where the Lincolns and the Carters lived,” he says. “In fact, Nancy Hanks Lincoln (Abe Lincoln’s mother who died of milk sickness) is buried on Carter property” (now part of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Indiana).
Haaff also cites the inlay work on the mallet. “I’ve seen it before,” he says. Thomas Lincoln’s cabinetry was known for its intricate inlay work, work that would have required math skills — a point Haaff makes in his argument that history has erred in its presentation of Thomas Lincoln as an illiterate farmer. “He was a farmer to provide food for his family, but he was a carpenter, and he passed on those skills to his son, so he could help out in the growing business.”
The National American Museum of American History, a Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., owns an iron wedge that Lincoln used to split wood. It was found in 1885 in New Salem, Illinois, during renovations of a home that once belonged to Lincoln’s friend Mentor Graham. Lincoln gave Graham the wedge as a token of his friendship when he was about to leave New Salem to begin his career as an attorney in Springfield, Illinois. The initials “A.L.” appear on one side of the wedge. A neighbor to Graham later stated that Lincoln went to a blacksmith shop and asked to have his initials cut into the wedge. The blacksmith hesitated — perhaps he could not write — and Lincoln borrowed the tools and marked the wedge himself — in the same style of letters he inlaid onto his mallet.
What does surprise Haaff is that the mallet survived for 188 years. “What also surprises me is that from the years 1830 to 1860, this mallet was kept and preserved, the years before Lincoln was president. He meant something to the Carters; he was someone special to them,” says Haaff.
A Road Trip
Back in the Richland, Indiana, pole barn, it was time for the mallet to depart to the Indiana State Museum with Koerber, Van Why, and Ogden, where the process of creating a display and introducing the mallet to the public quickly took shape. Never again would Abe Lincoln’s mallet be touched by ungloved hands or stored in a plastic box.
“It was an energetic few days,” says Ogden. “We wanted to unveil it for Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12.”
Other than properly displaying the mallet, it required no restoration, Indiana State Museum’s Koerber says. “The patina that it has acquired is part of its history,” she says.
Adam DeKemper is director of exhibit design at the Indiana State Museum. He, along with Leigh-Ann Weddle, senior graphic designer, was challenged to create the display for the mallet. “An artifact like this is tiny, but mighty and you do not want to clutter up its surroundings with graphics or visual clutter,” says DeKemper. “You want to put it on a small pedestal and let people walk around it and soak up all of its wonder.”
Weddle describes the challenge of interpreting the mallet with graphic design.
“People know Abraham Lincoln as ‘The Railsplitter’ and it isn’t obvious that his mallet was once used to split rails,” says Weddle. “We needed one simple diagram to show how Lincoln’s original splitting maul was refashioned into the much smaller mallet when the maul broke.”
Museum officials are eager to acknowledge the importance of the Lincoln mallet. While the Museum’s Lincoln collection is extensive — thanks mostly to the addition in 2008 of historic objects and art from the Lincoln Financial Collection, one of the world’s most extensive accumulations of Lincoln artifacts — it was short on objects related to Lincoln’s years in Indiana, from 1816 to 1830.
“Lincoln spent his formative years in Indiana, from age 7 to 21,” says Ogden. “It’s truly amazing how many people don’t know Abe Lincoln had his formative years in Indiana. The Lincoln legends we learn in fourth grade, all those stories are Indiana stories. The story of Abe Lincoln as a railsplitter is an Indiana story. And now we have an artifact that physically connects Abe Lincoln to Indiana. There are almost no 3D artifacts to connect the Lincolns to the state. They were a rural family; there really are no artifacts, beyond the Thomas Lincoln cabinets that are surfacing in recent years.
“That’s why people come to museums,” says Ogden. “We need stuff, objects, to say this is why we exist. The mallet is the Holy Grail. We can say, ‘Did you know that Lincoln developed his reputation as a railsplitter in Indiana?’”
Ogden often walks through the galleries to interact with museum guests. Recently he saw a little girl and her mother viewing Lincoln’s Mallet. “Is that real? Is that what he used?” the young girl asked. Ogden jumped in and explained indeed it was real. “You can’t do that with a picture and a label,” he says.
Tom King, president and CEO of the Indiana State Museum, agrees, “Except for the pages of a sum (math) book Lincoln put together when he was in his early teens living in Spencer County, there’s almost nothing physical that connects Abraham Lincoln to Indiana. Because it is such a unique artifact, the mallet has an enormous historical value.
“When his family left Southwestern Indiana, Lincoln was merely a farm boy and left few objects behind. This rare artifact from Spencer County connects Southern Indiana to Lincoln’s legacy in a closer way than ever before.”
At the February press conference at the Indiana State Museum, after the dramatic unveiling by Gov. Pence and King, the governor said, “I love Indiana history. I love Abraham Lincoln. So it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
Interviewed in April about the artifact, Gov. Pence said, “As the value of the Lincoln mallet is incalculable, I think the importance of this artifact in physically connecting Abraham Lincoln to the state of Indiana is very meaningful to Hoosiers. It will draw people from all over the country and all over the world who will come here to see those initials. I have been a student of Abraham Lincoln all of my life and I deeply admire him and to be close to something that his hands touched, that he crafted, is very humbling to me. I know it’s going to touch people all over the world who come to Indiana to see it.”
Back Home in Southern Indiana?
Where and if the Lincoln mallet will be displayed after this year is still to be determined. Carter and Solis signed a year-long agreement to lend the Lincoln mallet to the Indiana State Museum, a term they thought was appropriate to celebrate 200 years of Indiana history. Brauns and his committee expect to pick back up with regular meetings to help advise Carter and Solis on the next steps for the mallet.
Melissa Brockman, executive director of the Spencer County Visitors Bureau, agrees. “This mallet is, perhaps, one of the most significant artifacts of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood years in Indiana,” says Brockman. “It would certainly add to the abundant history available at sites commemorating Lincoln here in Spencer County, and I believe those interested in his life and the history of that period would travel to see the mallet here."
For a complete listing of events in the statewide celebration of Indiana’s 200th birthday, visit the Bicentennial Commission website, in.gov/ibc/.
At the Indiana State Museum — 650 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
Lincoln’s Mallet — Through Dec. 31, 2016
Abraham Lincoln’s bench mallet (circa 1829) was revealed on Feb. 9, just a few days before his birthday and will remain on view through 2016 at the museum. This artifact originally was a splitting maul used by Lincoln to drive iron wedges into logs creating split rails for fencing. The maul head, made from a tree root-ball, eventually split in half. Rather than discard the tool, Lincoln repurposed it into a bench mallet he used to drive pegs into furniture and other fixtures. Lincoln discarded the original long handle and relocated a shorter grip into the remaining portion of the maul to create a mallet. Lincoln’s Mallet is on loan by its owners Keith Carter and Andrea Carter Solis. “The unveiling of the Lincoln mallet generated an unprecedented amount of media coverage. The event has allowed us to reintroduce ourselves as an institution with an invaluable collection of treasures,” said Bruce Williams, director of media and public relations for the museum.
Indiana in 200 Objects: A Bicentennial Celebration — Through Jan. 29, 2017
When you visit the Indiana State Museum to see Lincoln’s Mallet, you’ll also be able to see Indiana in 200 Objects: A Bicentennial Celebration. From the bedrock of Indiana to a pair of Chuck Taylor’s Chuck Taylors, the exhibit explores and celebrates the history, science, and culture of the Hoosier state through 200 iconic and interesting objects. The exhibition, which opened in late April, features artifacts from the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites’ own extensive collection (including Angel Mounds State Historic Site), as well as objects from partner organizations and institutions like the National Archives and Records Administration. Evansville-related objects include a Halston-designed optical printed silk chiffon evening dress, 1979 (collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites; Gift of Don Day and Natalie Swindell) and Servel Electrolux gas-powered refrigerator, Servel Inc., 1938 (collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites). Susannah Koerber, senior vice president of collections and interpretation at the Indiana State Museum, says themes emerged as the team of 12 curators pulled together the collection. “We hope it makes people think about what a Hoosier is and what Indiana is. How we got to where we are today and where we’re going,” says Koerber.