Keith Price walks up to the pile of stones that he believes is the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, in Bostic, a small crossroads in Rutherford County.

Keith Price walks up to the pile of stones that he believes is the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, in Bostic, a small crossroads in Rutherford County. (Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

BOSTIC, N.C. -- Note to aspiring saints and office-holders: You'll know you've achieved "legendary" status when whispered tales are attached to your life story with question marks. The higher you rise, the more there are.

Consider Abraham Lincoln. There are tales about him in Washington, where the 16th president saved the Union and was assassinated. Likewise in Springfield, Ill., the closest to a normal "home" the self-made Lincoln had.

Likewise in this Rutherford County crossroads where some say he was born atop Lincoln Hill, just east of larger and more rugged Cherry Mountain.

The world at large believes he was born Feb. 12, 1809, in a cabin near Hodgenville, Ky. At least once, Lincoln himself put this in writing. It's where the National Park Service oversees the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park.

The Bostic Lincoln Center holds otherwise. According to its research, what remains of his birthplace is about an hour west of Charlotte, a ruined foundation in a thicket of trees above a creek. It's on private land to which the center has access. Call in advance, and Keith Price or another member will walk you up there on a short run of trails that vanishes in a maze of chestnut oak and pine saplings.

Before or after you make the easy climb, you'll hear why they believe the American Moses was the illegitimate son of Nancy Hanks -- and that a ne'er-do-well named Thomas Lincoln was hired to take her and her infant to Kentucky, where Lincoln married her and claimed the child as his own.

Among the reasons Price was disinclined attend a Lincoln birth bicentennial last year in Raleigh: "It was probably his 205th birthday."

The standard bio: Thomas Lincoln crossed into Kentucky and married fellow Virginian Nancy Hanks in 1806. Abe was their only child to live past 21. Nancy Hanks died in 1816.

Lincoln acknowledged his humble beginnings -- his "Rail Splitter" nickname plays off his workingman past -- but didn't discuss his parents much. Nancy Hanks was herself probably illegitimate, a factor that could've been lethal in the highly charged 1860 presidential campaign.

The election and bitter war that followed brought more scandal-mongering. With his assassination came a flood of recollections about a man with an obscure past. Various accounts had Lincoln born at 15 sites in three states.

At the Bostic Lincoln Center, you're likely to run into Keith Price and Lydia Clontz, its president and vice president, respectively. Price, born and raised in Rutherford County, was a contractor in Gastonia; Virginia-born Clontz lived in various states before retiring in Bostic.

They gradually became involved in a time-honored legend built into a cause by Tom Melton, a local school principal whose passion was proving Lincoln's Bostic origins. Melton died in 2008. The center, which opened that year, acquired his books and files. "He revered Lincoln for a lot of reasons," recalls Price, Melton's friend. "He wanted the president's greatness equally attributed to where he came from."

In the early 1900s, three rail lines crossed at Bostic; trains no longer stop there. The center is the former Seaboard depot, moved back from the tracks and spruced up with volunteer elbow grease. The main chamber, the onetime freight area, is the size of a living room. It is dominated by a trio of wall-mounted storyboards, each 4 by 5 feet, that spell out the Bostic case.

A heavy wooden table in the middle of this gallery provides the ideal place to argue and speculate.

A handful of other items line the room: a set of Victorian women's clothing, a 19th- century spinning wheel and several cases holding books and curios.

Unquestionably Abe's: Framed on one wall is an original Civil War certificate, signed by the president and by Secretary of State Edwin Stanton. It discharges a man named McCampbell after 100 days of military service.

From the Lincoln Hill ruins: the leg of a cooking pot, a chunk of graphite used for writing, and metal fragments from a pie safe. All were found in the 1960s. The site has never been excavated by professional archaeologists.

Related to the Bostic case: a photographic portrait of Richard Martin, one of several area men who have been suggested as Lincoln's actual father.

Lincoln scholar Edward Steers says 16 men have been named as the president's father, a list that started as an 1860 smear and continues to this day. In an essay posted at Abraham Lincoln Online, the distinguished historian presents the case that the N.C. Lincoln argument is "spurious." He convincingly points out that there were multiple women named Nancy Hanks living in Western North Carolina in the early 1800s, that the Rutherford County servant girl was not the president's mother and why place-specific records show it was impossible for Thomas Lincoln to have passed through the Bostic area.