By Bridget Manley, publisher
After almost two years of renovations and lots of surprises — both good and bad —the Bixler family has moved into the Lincoln Homestead.
“I think we imagined that it would be this way someday, but with the day-to-day repairs, in the thick of it, we kind of lost sight of that vision,” Sarah Bixler said. “Even now, it’s kind of hard to realize we are at this point. Sometimes we just step back from our work for a moment and look around, and pinch ourselves and realize, whoa, this is where we will be living.”
The home, located in Linville north on Route 42 from Harrisonburg, was lived on by Abraham Lincoln’s ancestors. Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was born at the homestead before moving west to the famous Kentucky log cabin where the president was born.
The home sat vacant for decades and was falling into disrepair when Sarah and Benjamin Bixler purchased the property.
Now they plan to host speakers and events in the Homestead’s parlor, as well as to work with local experts to find out more about who lived there, who was forced to work there and who might have lived on the land even before Europeans settled in the area.
The Bixlers discovered some fascinating and terrifying quirks around the 220-year-old-home during the process.
For starters, the termite and water damage that they suspected in some areas around the homestead turned out to be worse than they originally thought.
They also ended up taking out an entire floor in the rear of the home after realizing it had faulty construction.
“When we took the old ceiling down, we realized the ceiling was the only thing holding the floor together above it,” Sarah said, laughing.
Other surprises were exciting.
As they took down a wall on the main staircase landing, they exposed a hidden cubby in the landing. Inside, they found artifacts from when the home was built.
“We found a wooden hand-carved stirring paddle, and we found what we discovered was a wet stone horn,” Bixler said.
The horn was made from an animal with a metal hook that someone would have worn on their belt. The horn would have held sharpening stones and water and was used to sharpen a scythe while working in a field.
The Bixlers feel confident that the items were placed there when the house was being built, and they estimate the horn dates back to the early 1800s or is even older.
The Bixlers left several window cuttings in walls where they found interesting items, and they plan to place frames around the cuttings. They found penciled handwriting, including one that was written in 1909 by a young woman who remembered a party that she attended at “the glenn.”
Another note, written by Elizabeth Reynolds in the 1940s, talked about putting up wallpaper with her twin daughters. She wrote, “This wall is being papered today.”
Benjamin Bixler said for so long, the work of renovations took his mind away from the idea that this was going to be his home. When it did hit him, he was excited.
“I had just had my head down with my list of things to do,” he said. “And we started cleaning up the rooms, and it wasn’t a construction site any longer. It was like, ‘Oh! This is kind of nice! This turned out really well.’ It was a surreal experience; seeing it through new eyes now all of a sudden.”
Public interest and continued research
After beginning renovations, the couple held an open house in February 2020 that attracted over 700 visitors, and that’s when they realized that there was overwhelming public interest in the home.
The Bixlers were shocked.
“We knew there was a lot of curiosity about the house and that a lot of people locally had some kind of connection to it — or to families who had lived here over the decades — but we had no idea how many people would turn out just to walk through and to see it,” Sarah said.
After the main renovations were completed and right before the Bixlers moved in last month, they held one more open house for the public to see what they had accomplished. Again, they saw hundreds of visitors over the July weekend, including a family from North Carolina who drove for hours to the open house and who said they were descendants of the Lincoln family.
The Bixlers plan to focus more now on historical and educational programming. They have always imagined the main parlor as a space to gather people, and they want to bring in speakers such as Joe McGill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project.
After renovating the home and digging through old papers and research, the Bixlers say that they are certain that sections of the home had to have built using forced labor.
According to their research, the house was built in three sections. The first section — the front —was built by Jacob and Dorcas Lincoln in 1800. The rear section was built by their son, Colonel Abraham, in the 1840s. Those years are the same years that, according to property tax records, 8-12 enslaved people over the age of 12 were being held at the homestead.
“The Lincolns were enslaving people here at that time,” Sarah said. “So, we have become even more attuned to the people and the sacredness of certain spaces because we learned more of the history as we’ve gone on with the project.”
The third section was built in the late 1800s long after the Lincolns had sold the property, and the two sections were combined to make one large home.
Another line of inquiry the Bixlers hope to pursue is researching native people who lived on the land before Europeans and the Lincolns settled in the Valley.
“There is a recent publication by Carole Nash, and archeologist at JMU, that we want to look into,” Bixler said. “We want to learn more about people who were here before it became the Lincoln Homestead. We want to honor them as well.”
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