Amid public’s interest in Lincoln Homestead, owners plan open house and Juneteenth events

The line stretched down the road as people waited for hours to visit the Lincoln Homestead during the Feb. 12 Lincoln Day ceremony, prompting the owners to schedule more public open house events.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

The owners of the Lincoln Homestead will again open the historic house to the public on April 4, after a wave of interest at this month’s Lincoln Day Ceremony forced some of the 700 people who showed up to wait hours to see it — if they could get in at all. 

Benjamin and Sarah Bixler, the homestead’s new owners, said they will have the next open house from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on April 4 as a way to invite the community to explore the history of home that belonged to the ancestors of the 16th president. The Bixlers, along with the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, also plan to host a Junteenth celebration with Joe McGill for a slave dwelling experience and educational presentation. 

McGill is the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, an organization dedicated to preserving the dwellings of enslaved people and changing the narrative of American history and the legacies of slavery. Documents and gravestones in the Lincoln Cemetary show that enslaved people lived and worked at the Lincoln Homestead. 

If the Feb. 12 Lincoln Day Ceremony is any indication, public interest in the property, especially as the Bixlers work to restore it, is high. The ceremony marked the first public event since the Bixlers purchased the property last fall.  

And this one attracted more than 700 people. Cars stretched more than a mile on Harpine Highway, and people waited for hours in line to see inside the historic and intriguing home.

The Lincoln Day ceremony brought hundreds to the cemetery.

Jim Davis, a descendant of Abigail Lincoln, a distant cousin to President Abraham Lincoln, was standing in line during the open house to catch a glimpse of the place where his ancestors were born. 

“I’m just glad to stand in the rooms where Abigail was in,” Davis said. “It’s kind of like I’ll be there with them, in a way. We will bring them back to life. When you talk about your ancestors, even if you put their name out in the air, they are with you again.” 

Mac Coffman, another descendant of Abigail Lincoln, said he was excited to see the inside of the homestead for the first time. He said he owns some of the Lincoln’s personal items.

“We have the Lincoln Bible and silverware that was passed down through Abigail,” Coffman said. “[President] Abraham Lincoln’s birth was recorded in it.” 

The Homestead was rented out to milk farmers in the 1950s and 1960s, and some of the last people to live in the home came back to see what it looked like.

Dawn Rhodes, along with her mother Doris Heatwole, lived in the home for several years. Rhodes was born while the family lived there and said she has fuzzy memories of playing in the front rooms before they moved in 1965, when she was 5.

Doris Heatwole shows the photos she brought with her from her time living in the Lincoln Homestead.

Rhodes and Heatwole brought photos of their life living in the Homestead, and Rhodes recalled when a window blew open during a winter storm.

“There was snow on the hall floor,” Rhodes said.

Heatwole said not much has changed inside. Her photos showed a family celebrating birthdays, eating holiday dinners and playing in the snow. While the house gets so much attention for its connection to the Lincoln family’s origins, she said the Homestead was special to her because it contains the roots of her family. 

“This is where we lived when our four children were born,” Heatwole said. “We brought them home here.”

Heatwole said she knew of the Lincoln history while she lived there, and their family would receive unexpected visitors who were interested in the history and wanted to see the cemetery. 

One of the photos Heatwole brought with her.

“It was so interesting that people would say ‘I wouldn’t think of walking into the house, but can I just look around outside’ or they would say “I would love to come inside,’” Heatwole said, chuckling. “I would just let them in.” 

Neither thought they’d be able to see the inside again. They said they were shocked at the number of people who came to see the home and worried they wouldn’t get inside. They say they are excited to see the Bixlers restoring the home, noting the sadness they felt over the years as they drove past while it fell into disrepair. 

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Lincoln Day Ceremonies, Phillip Stone and Judge John Paul, stood inside the homestead marveling at the crowds. 

“I think it’s the biggest crowd we’ve had,” said Stone, who is also the president and founder of the Lincoln Society of Virginia. “I’ve never seen cars like this parked on the highway. They were so willing to listen. It was nice.” 

The Bixlers, overwhelmed with the number of people who wanted to say “hello” and see the home, expressed gratitude for the stories people told and the love they felt from the community.

“People are very thankful that we are taking this on,” Benjamin said. “It’s a good affirmation.”

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