Come face to face with a cave bear. Dress the role of a Civil War soldier. Ride a vintage fire engine through the streets of Chicago. These are stuff of childhood dreams.
What kid hasn’t wondered what it was really like to live in the past? What did the streets look like after the Great Chicago Fire? Was it comfortable to ride across the country in a steam engine train? Could he have made it as a medieval knight?
Give your kids a summer to remember by turning your car into a virtual time machine. Discover the sights, feel and sounds of history. You and your family can travel back hundreds, even millions of years, without leaving the Chicago area.
The age of dinosaurs
Discover the dinosaurs in your backyard this summer at Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda. Through Aug. 30, "Prehistoric Lake County" transports visitors through three geological time periods. Kids come face to face with a dinosaur skull, can touch teeth and tusks and even dig up
Look beyond what appears to be an Evanston jewelry store. Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop has its own Prehistoric Life Museum, a privately owned collection of fossils, footprints, bones and the world’s largest carnivorous dinosaur egg. See 30-million-year-old insects and an entire 20,000-year-old cave bear skeleton. www.daves
On July 25, dig up your own marine fossils on a day trip with Elmhurst’s Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art. Brachiopods, trilobites and corals from the Ordovician Period (450 million years ago) await discovery on this field trip for families (ages 8 and up). Reservations are required. www.lizzadromuseum.org.
The early ages
The Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wis., takes visitors back to the year 1574 every Saturday and Sunday from July 11-Sept. 7. Romp through Elizabethan England, eat gigantic turkey legs, play 16th-century games while listening to music and meeting its unique cast of characters. www.renfair.com/bristol.
Eat, drink and be merry with knights in shining armor at Medieval Times in Schaumburg. This dinner theater experience comes complete with horses, jousts and illusions. Each section of the enormous theater cheers for its own knight to win the heart of the princess. Kids especially love the "no silverware" rule. www.medievaltimes.com.
You also can check out the costumes and weaponry of these early years at Chicago’s Art Institute. The museum has a great collection of arms and armor, jewelry, tapestries, paintings and sculpture that show what life was really like for lords and ladies. www.artic.edu.
Naper Settlement is a 19th-century historic museum village filled with costumed guides, period buildings, artifacts and interactive exhibits. Kids literally step back in Naperville’s history as it was changing from a frontier outpost to a bustling community. Settlement Sundays, June 28-Aug. 16, include ice cream and a variety of hands-on activities and games. www.napersettlement.org.
Graue Mill and Museum in Oak Brook is an operating waterwheel grist mill and homestead with presentations and artifacts and even costumes that illustrate how residents lived between 1850 and 1890. The home was a station of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Visitors can go to the basement to see displays, photographs and documents relevant to the issues of slavery and routes to freedom. www.grauemill.org.
The Great Chicago Fire
Why not start where the fire started? The City of Chicago Fire Assessment and Training Center is located on the exact spot of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, now 558 W. DeKoven. The lobby is open to the public and has some interesting old-fashioned engines and a great memorial to fallen firefighters.
Kids can trace the path of the fire at the Chicago History Museum. Volunteers tell the story with oversized maps, icons and first-hand accounts. Witness fire’s awesome power in the form of household objects fused by its heat. Play a game where you match images to sounds from the fire in "Sensing Chicago." Kids 12 and under are always free. www.chicagohistory.org.
Imagine yourself a firefighter as you ride through the city on a 1965 vintage fire engine with O’Leary’s Chicago Fire Truck Tours. You’ll hear theories and history about the Chicago Fire while marveling at the landmarks that have been built since the city’s almost total destruction. www.olearysfiretours.com.
The golden age of railroads
Ride an important part of American history at the Hesston Steam Museum in Northwest Indiana. Learn why steam was as important as electricity in the early 20th century while you take a train ride through deep woods, past lakes and farm fields. In addition to an operating 1929 locomotive and miniature locomotives, Hesston has a turn-of-the-century steam-powered saw mill and an early electric power plant. See this summer’s debut of Brookfield Zoo’s former steam train, now at Hesston. www.hesston.org.
The Illinois Railway Museum in Union preserves and operates dozens of historic railroad and mass transit cars. This "museum in motion" gives kids a chance to ride steam, diesel and electric trains. Old-fashioned streetcars provide the on-property transportation. You can also explore most of the non-moving models. www.irm.org.
At the Museum of Science and Industry’s "Great Train Story," kids can watch more than 30 miniature trains make the journey from Chicago to Seattle. They can build a tunnel, raise a drawbridge and load lumber. A vintage 1934 Pioneer Zephyr tour encourages families to explore the various compartments. Kids can "drive" the train via an interactive computer. www.msichicago.org.
Alena Murguia is a long-time member of Chicago Parent’s staff and is the mom of three boys.