Where you headed?” asked my neighbor as we loaded up the suitcases.
“Springfield,” I responded.
“Why?” he asked, incredulous.
And that sums up the response of just about everyone who heard we were heading to our state capital for a weekend visit.
The purpose of our trip was to get a sneak preview of the new Abraham Lincoln Museum, slated to open in a four-day celebration April 16 to 19. But Springfield is a place I have long thought we should bring our children, to acquaint them with the workings of state government.
We arrived to find out why political reporters call it “Springpatch.” We rolled into town at 5 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Sunday in early March and found. . . virtually nothing. Not a restaurant open. Not a pedestrian strolling along the avenue.
Strolling New Salem
Fortunately, we weren’t up for much. The bright sunshine and 60-degree air had beckoned us from the car about 20 miles north of Springfield when we saw the sign for New Salem, a reconstructed settlement that was home to Lincoln for six years.
We spent a lovely two hours wandering along the paved lanes and peering into the barrel maker’s shop, the blacksmith’s shop and the one-time Berry-Lincoln store. The children ran from cabin to cabin, not bothering to read the information, preferring instead to ask us what they were seeing—or simply to peer inside, then race onto the next—until we hit the carding shop. Looking out back at the huge, slanted wheel used to card wool raised sympathetic thoughts of the poor oxen who had been sentenced to a life of nothing but trodding around in circles.
Since it was early in the season, there were few guides dressed in period clothing available to answer our questions. Having spent so much time in the car, we were uninterested in sitting for the 20-minute orientation film in the museum shop. Absent the facts, we entertained ourselves by guessing at what we were seeing.
The paved path makes this settlement easily accessible for strollers, and even toddlers and youngsters will find plenty of open space for running when they lose interest in the history.
As we headed back to the highway and south to Springfield, we wondered how Abe ever found his way to New Salem. Even now, the settlement is nestled in thick woods and can be found only because of the plentiful signs along the highway.
We spent the night at the Renaissance Springfield Hotel as guests of the Illinois Department of Tourism. This is a nice, downtown hotel with affordable, small-town rates—our two double beds and standard room rented for a mere $80. In Chicago, it would have cost twice that. We made up the savings by ordering room service since our walk around the neighborhood turned up no viable dinner options.
The next morning brought the highlight of our trip—an early look at the long-awaited Lincoln Museum. The $90.3 million dollar museum, four years in the making, has been criticized as being too Disney-esque, but my family pronounced it practically perfect.
The highlight for the kids was Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, the children’s play area, which they entered via the child-sized door. Evan, 11, spent his time building with Lincoln Logs, while Tess, 9, went from the dress-up section, where she tried on the skirts and jackets that a child her age would have worn in the mid-1800s, to the doll house replica of the Lincoln home, complete with figures of Abe, Mary, Robert, Willie, Tad and even the family dog. It’s a joyful spot for kids and fun for parents, too, with its period toys, building blocks and music—I found myself singing along to “Polly Wolly Doodle.” It’s a song that can’t help but bring on a smile.
The museum is divided into two sections—Lincoln’s life before he was elected president in 1860 and his life as president. The kids were taken with his early life. The display is complete with a replica of the crowded, one-room cabin constructed from 200-year-old wood that shows how he would have lived with his family. (Abe is, of course, depicted reading by the fire while the rest of the family sleeps.) They also enjoyed the Berry-Lincoln store, which currently has everything out and touchable, including the wooden canteens, the barrel full of beans and the antique padlocks and keys. They’ll remain touchable, a spokeswoman said, at least through the early days of the opening. If museum managers find that they are being touched too much, however, they may end up behind glass or get roped off.
A modern media room, featuring Tim Russert operating from his “Meet the Press” newsroom to cover the 1860 campaign, was a fun look at how the media would have seen Lincoln’s presidential aspirations. (I loved the headlines running along the bottom of the screen announcing that a scientist named Pasteur believed that boiling milk could rid it of “germs” and noting that critics were calling him a quack.)
The post-election section offers a much darker look at Lincoln’s life, replete with images of war, turmoil and death. The kids were less enamored with this scarier half of the museum. Some parts, particularly the Illusion Gallery, in which voices yell their opposition to Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation, were a bit unnerving. The kids scurried past the replica of Lincoln’s casket lying in state.
Not yet operating were two multimedia programs, “Lincoln’s Eyes” and “Ghosts of the Library.” The kids—including Evan, who had announced prior to the trip that he is “not really into history”—already say they want to return to see them.
Springfield is just 200 miles southwest of Chicago—a perfect destination for one of those all-too-frequent, three-day weekends when the kids are off school on a Monday. But call before you go. Many of the attractions we would have visited during our trip were closed on Mondays.
Cindy Richards is senior editor and travel editor of Chicago Parent.