by Wayne Pauly from Dane County Parks ACTION Adult Conservation Team Newsletter (All folklore stories)
Growing up in Illinois, we heard many stories about Lincoln, and a mental picture of him reading his borrowed books by the light of the fireplace stayed with me. Many times while camping I’ve tried to read by firelight, and it’s a frustrating experience; the bright flames are too hot to get near and by the time the fire cools down, the good light is gone.
Some years ago I paged through a book on Appalachian crafts and a reference to Abraham Lincoln caught my eye. His family stocked up on hickory bark to use on long winter nights, and Lincoln, like other impoverished pioneers who needed to read or work by inconsistent firelight, used a few slabs of hickory bark to renew the flames, thus providing a steady light. I tried it and it worked great. A small piece of hickory bark on the coals created a steady flame for reading. Later I created a crude reading candle using an old bowl filled with dirt, a few hot coals from the fire, and some hickory bark. Blowing on the hot coal in the bowl ignited the resins in the hickory bark and provided ten minutes of reading.
It got me thinking, how we do not record the ordinary, just the special.Writings about early American life occasionally refer to candle making, but rarely mention other forms of light used by the log cabin families before the advent of cheap coal oil for lanterns. I picture someone a few hundred years from now looking over a 20th Century family photo album and imagining our life as one long vacation interrupted by innumerable birthday parties.