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Springfield road trip

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you'll remember that we'd been having some difficulty coming up with Spring Break travel plans. We had a trip planned to Milwaukee that was scrapped. We had a trip planned to St. Louis that was scrapped. We had a trip planned to Nashville...scrapped. And we got a mixed reaction from the kids about various local plans in the Chicago area for the two days after Easter that Mama took off work for family time. It's really gotten to the point where we've decided to stop getting input from the kids about activities. If we want to go somewhere, we'll tell them to get in the car and we're going. So the Sunday evening discussion took a turn to the unexpected at bedtime and we decided to make a quick hotel reservation and drive to Springfield for a couple of days.

Springfield, for those who haven't ever been, is a weird place. Driving south of Chicago--whether you go to Indiana or stay in Illinois--is a mix of industrial factories, power plants, oil refineries, etc.. The North Shore may have mansions, but the drive out of Chicago south is smokestacks and ugly rivers that slowly give way to flat, treeless farmland. That's a theme that continues in our state capital. It has a few very grand, glorious civic buildings...and it also has a gritty, run-down feel overall. It's a sprawling small town with only a couple of minor tall buildings, lots of run-down houses, and a population of about 100,000. In some ways, it's a nice metaphor for our broken state government.

Lincoln himself was involved in trying to make Springfield the capital and when he lived here it was a growing prairie community. Today, it's about 3 hours south of Chicago on I-55. Lincoln's Springfield was small houses in a fairly densely packed neighborhood just a short walk from his law office. The Lincolns had an active social life, raised very unruly children, expanded their home, and saw long periods of Lincoln away riding the court circuit in nearby small towns.

Our first stop of the trip was to the National Park Service "Lincoln Home Historic Site" which is really a whole neighborhood that has been preserved. Somewhat. There are empty grass lots where some homes have been torn down. But Lincoln's house was an attraction almost immediately so it has been kept intact as the centerpiece with various other historic houses either open with exhibits or containing government offices. When you arrive in the small parking lot, the pay station can be confusing but they try to have a helpful clock above it telling you how many hours until the next tour. Go inside the small visitor center and you'll find restrooms, a gift shop, a movie theater, and a desk with helpful rangers who will get you free tour tickets to the Lincoln Home. My kids eventually got a booklet with a few age-appropriate activities. If you fill it out, bring it back to the desk and the rangers will review their work and make them Junior Park Rangers complete with a badge, temporary tattoo, and an oath to protect and share National Park spaces. Note to ourselves: a few boxes of crayons would be a great donation idea for this excellent program.

The Lincoln Home was originally 1.5 stories with two very small sleeping rooms on the second floor. Eventually, the Lincolns would jack the roof up and build a full second story which you get to visit on the tour. It was important to Mary to have social space for guests so lots of attention is paid to the parlor and dining room while the kitchen is quite small. (Though she loved her stove so much she wanted to take it to Washington.) The railing on the stairs is one of the few original things in the house so you can try to imagine Lincoln himself touching it on the way up and down each day. The upstairs has separate spaces for Mary and Mr. Lincoln...he would come and go at all hours and the house was filled with men so she needed her own space. The kids shared a room and then there was also a room for the young lady who would light the fires early each morning.

After an overpriced and somewhat mediocre lunch at Obel & Isaac's microbrewery across the street (in contrast, Van's Coffeehouse was a pleasant surprise for dessert), we headed just north of town to Oak Ridge Cemetery...the site of The Lincoln Tomb and War Memorials State Historic Site. It was really just an afterthought of something to do before going back to the hotel pool to swim. But it turned out to be one of the coolest parts of the trip. Unlike the rest of Springfield, the cemetery is hilly and beautiful and a fitting location for a grand monument.

After the assassination, Lincoln was temporarily at the back of the hill until the grave could be fully prepared. Today the tomb sits at the top with commanding views and a plaza explaining the sights to visitors. Inside the building, a series of rooms with Lincoln figures takes you to the rear where a large marker flanked by flags shows where Lincoln is 10 ft below. (My son was disappointed that he didn't get to see Lincoln's skeleton.) In the surrounded cemetery are several markers and memorials to past governors and fallen soldiers from various wars.

When we got up the next morning, our only real goal for the day was the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. It's a newer attraction having only existed since 2005. Which is both a blessing and a curse. In contrast to the folksy, understated, relaxing Lincoln Home, the Presidential Library is a massive complex with a parking garage that takes up more than three city blocks. I can't say our visit wasn't enjoyable...we ended up spending 4 hours here between exhibits, the gift shop, and lunch. But it's also a strangely run facility. I'll explain.

Entering the front doors there are staff everywhere. Staff with brochures. Staff selling memberships. Staff in every exhibit. Security everywhere. Staff guiding you with what to visit and when. Staff explaining how to use the exhibits and explaining the many rules. It's a little too much. Helpful guides are one thing. But you get the impression here that they are lurking, stalking, and there to protect the museum from you. At lunch, we even made the comment that it's a strange place because it's interactive but NOT hands-on. That's a difficult place to be as a visitor. They want you engaged...but not too engaged.

After buying tickets at the front desk (optional add-on for Union Station next door), you head over to the security guards and turnstiles. No food. No beverage. Cameras are ok but not flash and not in every space. Etc. The center section of the museum is a natural light rotunda with two movie theaters, a kid-friendly play space, a couple of galleries, and two main "journeys" leading off of it. The journeys enter through a log cabin and tell the story of Lincoln's birth to election and one leading through the White House that tells the story of his Presidency and assassination. The spaces are filled with very lifelike, detailed figures in costume--sometimes joined by actors--and the goal here is to immerse guests in the difficult decisions and experiences Lincoln had. You're greeted by a chorus of angry opinions about freeing the slaves, the cabinet debating the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.. The second journey ends with a fabulous re-creation of Lincoln's funeral that is so good I had to see it twice. Lots of money and effort have been put into making these scenes. The museum is short on actual Lincoln objects...they have his hat. But it makes up for it via high-tech displays.

The first theater uses a stage behind glass, a real actor, and some amazing special effects to tell the story of how presidential libraries allow historians to research the past. Hint: the librarian is a ghost. The second theater is a more conventional movie about the life of Lincoln the man vs Lincoln the legend. But it uses smoke, vibrating seats, and explosions to bring the action to life.

PS If you're looking to stay in Springfield we highly recommend the Country Inn and Suites. It's brand new, has a decent breakfast, an indoor pool, super comfortable beds, and a reasonable price. So what if it's across the freeway from a decommissioned power plant? That's pretty much Springfield in a nutshell...depressing but pockets of glory.