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Daytrip: Midwest Museum of Natural History in Sycamore

Did you know there is an elephant in the DeKalb County of Sycamore? Yep, it's true! He's mounted and is surrounded by dozens of other "stuffed' animals. Read on to find out where he makes his home.

Name: Midwest Museum of Natural History

Location: 425 W. State Street (Route 64) in downtown Sycamore, about 25 minutes west of St. Charles.

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays, although it will be open during spring break on March 26, 2012. 

Photo by Tara Burghart.

Amenities: You can park at the meters in front of the building (they are crazy cheap), or park for free in a city lot across State Street. The museum has a coat rack in the lobby. The museum does not sell food, but if you pack a lunch or a snack, you could eat in a large room in the basement used for birthday parties and other events. There is no designated nursing area, but there are several nooks where you could breastfeed in semi-private. The lobby (where you also pay admission) features a number of cool nature- and animal-themed toys for sale. 

Admission: Adults $6, children (ages 2-12) $5, seniors $5. (Free admission on Wednesdays through May 2012; fees still apply for special events or programs.) 

Good For: Preschoolers through adults.

History: When I first heard about the Midwest Museum of Natural History, I assumed that it must be somehow connected to nearby Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Nope. It actually holds a massive collection of prized mounts that belonged to Russell Schelkopf, a local veterinarian, entrepreneur, conservationist and lifelong hunter.

In 2004, he donated his animal collection to the city of Sycamore, and that eventually led to the creation of the Midwest Museum of Natural History. It is located in a beautiful stone building that was originally built in 1875 to house a church and for decades served as the Sycamore Community Center.

Photo by Tara Burghart.

Our Experience: I really wasn't sure what to expect when we first visited this museum last year, and it's certainly different than any other natural history museum I've been inside. Instead of the mounted animals being exhibited behind glass cases, or just a few to a group, they are nearly all placed in one giant hall located a few steps up from where you enter the building. 

The animals are grouped in "vignettes" similar to what you might see in the wild. (In other words, some are lunging at each other's throats, with teeth bared.) The North America habitat features more than 50 mammals, reptiles and birds on display -- including a truly intimidating black bear on its hind legs. But the Africa habitat is most impressive, with a mounted hippopotamus, baboon, lion, leopard, rhino and yes, that elephant. 

Also on the floor with the mounted animals, there is a scale where you compare your weight to a wild animal. My daughter now knows she weighs about as much as a red fox! There is also a wetland stream exhibit featuring a "log" my preschooler had fun climbing on. We checked out a display on horns and antlers, and we spent some time in the "Wildlife Observation" room, watching the neighborhood birds taking advantage of a number of feeders.

Photo by Tara Burghart.Downstairs, the museum features a "Discovery Den," where the motto is "Please Touch." There are rocks, fossils, shells, pelts, tree trunks and skulls kids can handle. There are animal costumes they can put on. And there is a 2-story play structure that they can climb up and through. The Discovery Den is also home to Hercules, a 25-pound Sulcata Tortoise, who roams around his heated enclosure.

In the hallways of the lower level are about a dozen tanks holding lizards and snakes. This is also the level with restrooms.

The Takeaway: When we first visited the museum about a year ago, my daughter was just 2 years old, and it basically was just a safe, warm place for her to run around for an afternoon. I tried to read bits and pieces about the exhibits as I chased her.

But we returned last month, and now that she's 3 1/2, we had a really enjoyable experience. She asked lots of questions about the mounted animals, and because the "walls" around the big displays are made of glass, she had no trouble seeing anything. We've been to plenty of zoos, but because these animals don't move, we were able to spend a lot of time looking at their fur, their paws, their horns, etc.

After spending time with the stuffed animals, it was fun for her to be able to see a volunteer feeding a lizard in the basement. And she had a great time (and wore herself out) playing with three other kids in the Discovery Den. She napped all the way home in the car. 

We'll definitely won't let another year go by before a return visit.

The play area, called the "Discovery Den." Photo by Tara Burghart.

Other Notes: 

  • The museum schedules lots of neat activities. I usually include the drop-in activities on the Go West Calendar, but you can see all of them on the museum's own calendar page
  • The museum also hosts field trips, Scout visits, group tours and birthday parties for as low as $125 for up to 15 people. Find out more on the museum's groups' page.
  • If you're looking for a place to eat after your visit to the museum, a staff member spoke highly of the diner-style Riccardi's Red Hots & Soda Fountain located across the street. It gets good reviews on Yelp, too. It serves ice cream (just $1 for a kid cone, according to the current menu), but while you're in Sycamore, you really should visit Ollie's Frozen Custard.

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