Tara Burghart Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 5:26PM
With the recent celebrations to mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, all things Abe are all the rage. But I’ve always been a big fan of our 16th president, which is a good thing, since I grew up just outside Springfield, Ill. Many of my grade-school classmates used to roll their eyes at yet another Lincoln-centric field trip. But all that history makes Illinois’ capital city a wonderful spot for an economical and family-friendly weekend getaway.
The Abraham Lincoln National Library and Museum (212 North Sixth St., 800-610-2094) has attracted more than 1 million visitors since the dedication of its museum portion in 2005. Billed as the first “experience museum” of its kind, it has technological innovations that should wow even the most jaded of tweens. Make plans to spend at least three hours there, and don’t forget the camera: You’ll want a portrait of your family posing with the life-sized replicas of the Lincolns in front of the White House. (It would make for a great holiday card!) If you are bringing a stroller, an umbrella version would be best -- this place can get crowded, and some of the spaces are a bit narrow. Afterward, cross Sixth Street to treat yourself to ice cream or a chocolate at a local institution, Peases’s Fine Candies & Salted Nuts (Sixth and Washington streets, 217-241-3091).
In my opinion, nothing beats walking in Lincoln’s steps in the only home he ever owned. It's been meticulously restored to its 1860 appearance, and some of the furniture inside actually was used by the Lincolns. Now called the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, you’ll want to stop at the Visitor Center at 426 South Seventh Street soon after your arrival in town to collect your (free!) timed tickets to tour the home in the company of a National Park Service ranger. The Park Service advises visitors to arrive as early in the day as possible to receive the tour tickets. While the last tour begins at 4:30 p.m., all the tickets will likely be snapped up before then on busy days.
The home tour lasts 20 to 25 minutes. After the tour, or while waiting for it to start, you can explore the surrounding four-block historic neighborhood, also restored to how it looked in 1860, the year before the Lincoln family left for Washington D.C.
All the above Lincoln sites are in Springfield’s downtown, which has been revitalized by the opening of the national museum and library. However, it’s still much easier to find a place to eat downtown if you’re there on a weekday. A favorite of mine is The Feed Store (516 E. Adams, 217-528-3355), famous for its sandwiches, pies and homemade soups. Try the Pork Barrel sandwich (as the menu says, “In the tradition of Illinois politics, it has something for everyone”) and a cup of beef barley or Wisconsin cheese soup.
If you don’t mind a bit of a drive, a site that is great for active youngsters is Lincoln’s New Salem (15588 History Lane, Petersburg, 217-632-4000), a historical village that seeks to recreate the tiny town about 20 miles northwest of Springfield where Lincoln lived as a young man. During the tourist season, you’ll likely encounter historical interpreters dressed in period clothing. It also features picnic areas, hiking trails and playground equipment. Make sure to check the hours of operation before making the drive to Petersburg.
If your family can handle even more history, other Lincoln spots in Springfield worth checking out include the Old State Capitol (Old State Capitol Plaza, near Sixth and Adams streets, 217-785-7960) where he served in the Illinois House of Representatives and delivered his “House Divided” speech. The scenic Greek Revival-style building is also where now-President Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president and the choice of Joe Biden as his running mate.
At the Great Western Depot (10th and Monroe) Lincoln began his inaugural journey to Washington D.C. by telling a small crowd of family and friends: “To this place, and to the kindness of these people, I owe everything.” He returned to Springfield in a coffin, and his final resting place is in Oak Ridge Cemetery (1441 Monument Ave., 217-782-2717).
If you’re looking to spend some time outdoors, Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center (2301 E. Lake Shore Dr., 217-529-1111 ) seeks to represent the landscape Lincoln would have encountered growing up in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen (he designed NYC’s Central Park), the garden features six miles of trails, footbridges and wooden benches inscribed with Lincoln quotes.
But if you’re ready for something non-Lincoln, architecture buffs will appreciate the Dana-Thomas House (301 E. Lawrence St., 217-782-6776), designed in 1902 by Frank Lloyd Wright for a wealthy heiress seeking to overhaul her family home. (One especially neat feature: a room that belonged to the original fussy Victorian house remains untouched, surrounded by Wright’s elegant Prairie design.)
A laid-back outdoor option is the lovely Washington Park (at South Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard). It features a carillon, a number of gardens, a great playground and a lovely duck pond.
When it comes to food in Springfield, your best choices are going to be greasy and cheap and very kid-friendly. Route 66 passes through Springfield and you can get your kicks at the Cozy Dog Drive In (2935 S. Sixth Street, 217-525-1992), where the owners lay claim to inventing the first “hot dog on a stick” in 1946. When my Uncle Jim visits from California, he boards the plane headed back west laden with frozen quarts of chili from Joe Rogers’ Original Recipe Chili Parlor (820 S. Ninth St., 217-522-3722). Finish a bowl of the “firebrand” and you can put your name on the wall. And your kids will be sure to get their daily allotment of sugar at one of Mel-o-Cream Donuts’ four locations (3010 S. Sixth St., 1953 W. Monroe St., 525 N. Grand Ave. East, 227 E. Laurel St.)
But no discussion of Springfield food would be complete without a mention of the horseshoe – a layered, delectable, calorie-packed Springfield creation that starts with two pieces of open-faced toasted bread laying side by side on a platter. On top of that is some kind of protein (I prefer ham) and french fries, with a yellow or white cheese sauce smothering the whole thing. Several restaurants in Springfield serve horseshoes; the 'shoe at D’Arcy’s Pint (661 W. Stanford Ave., 217-492-8800) is the most renowned, although it will likely come with a wait for a table. Other places where you'll find horseshoes include The Barrelhead (1577 Wabash Ave., 217-787-2102), Charlie Parker’s Diner (700 North St., 217-241-2104) and the Dublin Pub (2413 S. Macarthur Blvd., 217-793-6871.)
As for accommodations, staying in a hotel downtown will allow you to walk to many of the Lincoln sites. However, meal options on the weekend might be limited, as most places are closed Sunday, if not Saturday. Wherever you choose to stay, you’ll never be more than about 15 minutes from downtown, where parking is inexpensive and easy to find. The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a searchable index of hotels, beds and breakfasts and campgrounds.
Where: Springfield, Illinois
Why: Lincoln, Lincoln and more Lincoln. Plus horseshoes -- the kind you eat, not the kind you pitch.
When: Most of the must-see attractions are indoor, so Springfield makes for a fine year-round destination in all but most frigid of weather.
Distance from the Fox Valley: About 200 miles.
For more info: The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (109 North Seventh St., 800-545-7300)
Insider’s Hint: While your GPS might tell you to take Interstate 55 to Springfield, my family has found a saner option is to take Interstate 88 west to about 10 miles west of DeKalb. Then drop down on Interstate 39 south until you hit Bloomington, when you will indeed use Interstate 55 to reach Springfield. According to the map, this route takes about 10 minutes longer than driving I-55 the whole way. But I-55 is usually so full of traffic jams and slowdowns around Joliet that the alternate route might even save you some time.