I promised my eight-year-old grandson, William, a summer adventure. Just him and me. But Covid-19’s tight grip eliminated most options. Finally, in mid-August, we had a half-open window of opportunity: Springfield, Illinois called and we went.
Springfield happens to be my state’s capital. It sits in the middle of Illinois, on historic Route 66. There’s a ton to do, but mostly, it’s all about Abraham Lincoln. Since every American child knows the guy, no introduction is needed. I’d taken my older grandchildren there, so I knew the drill.
Meet “Flat Lincoln,” masked or not
Tourism took a nosedive during the pandemic. A necessary one, but a blow on every level, all over the world. Springfield, site of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, shut down, too.
If you raise your family in Illinois, your kids will make the obligatory pilgrimage to Springfield during their school years, about 6th to 8th grade. William lives in Indiana, so he needed to get there by other means: Me. And–if I may humbly add–I can do a vastly better job at making history fun and interesting. It’s my superpower.
- Our favorite turned out to be “Flat Lincoln.” We took both the masked and unmasked cutouts with us to record our journey. The Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area extends well beyond Springfield (It’s run by the National Park Service) but the heavy-hitters are in the town. William loved the idea from the get-go, and posed with Abe everywhere. (Eight-year-olds are good that way.)
- The Abraham Lincoln Museum is spectacular. Even though the crowds are already down, the timed-entry, buy-your-ticket-ahead arrangement makes it seem like you have the place to yourself. The museum has life-size scenes of Lincoln’s life, divided into two sections: before his presidency and his life in Washington, DC. There are two holographic presentations that are quite interesting, especially the one about Lincoln’s eyes. The interactive children’s section is closed during the pandemic, but we did just fine with what was available. (Note: The Library is only open for research. Appointments must be made three days in advance.)
- There are over 40 “Here I Have Lived” stops in Springfield, Illinois, where you can learn about how things/events/life were like when Lincoln lived there. Make a rubbing of the medallion that represents the story. Download and print the template before you go; there’s room for the rubbing and some notes about the information. William enjoyed this; each spot we talked about what it meant. I think older kids might get more out of the interpretive signs.
On to “real” places in Springfield, IL
Bursting with knowledge about Abraham Lincoln, it was time to visit a few actual spots he had set foot. A few blocks from the museum, and across the street from the ice cream shop where we paused for a pick-me-up, stands the Old State Capitol Historical Site. A National Historic Landmark since 1961, it’s where the state’s capital was relocated after the young Whig Party lawyer led an effort to bring the site to the center of the state; it had been in Vandalia, in south central Illinois, closer to St. Louis.
There are a few time slots a day when visitors can enter and explore the building. We’d signed up earlier, even though I wasn’t certain that an eight-year-old would be interested. But I was, so he’d have to tag along.
Kids can surprise you. William was keen on seeing all the rooms that Lincoln might have been in. I kept explanations simple, but he really latched onto Stephen Douglas and how “everybody thought he would be president.” (Douglas makes a few appearances in Springfield; he’s featured in a famous Lincoln-Douglas debate scene and the museum, and there’s a statue of him in the old capitol.) “Boy, we’re really lucky Lincoln beat him, aren’t we, Nana?”
It’s a short drive to see Lincoln’s home–the only home he ever owned. The interior is closed during the pandemic, but the outside and the entire neighborhood are well-maintained by the National Park Service.
Each house on the two-block neighborhood has a sign describing who lived there and a short bio. An interesting group–including the man who would become the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company–it would have made for great block parties! There’s also a lot believed to be part of the Underground Railroad, “conducted” by Jameson Jenkins, who gave the Lincolns a ride to the rail station when they left for Washington DC.
Having just seen a replica of Lincoln’s log cabin childhood home, William was quite impressed. “Good thing houses were invented by then,” he told me. “Otherwise, he would’ve had to live in another log cabin.”
Lincoln’s Final Resting Place
William is familiar with cemeteries. We’ve been visiting them since he was in preschool. Earlier this summer, we spent a long time at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, where he learned why Lincoln started the concept of national burial grounds for fallen soldiers. (Because so many men were dying in the Civil War, there was no place to bury them.) He actually considers himself somewhat of an expert on the subject.
Again, visits inside the tomb require an appointment. We arrived early and had time to wander the grounds a little before returning for a brief talk. It was really interesting; I’ve been to the tomb about ten times, but never knew some of the things the guide told us, like Lincoln’s body was moved a couple of times in the cemetery before this final resting place.
There was another couple in our time slot. They entered the tomb first and we waited until they had gone down one of the long hallways before we went in. If you haven’t been, it’s a somber place. William sensed that. The interior is marble, with sculptures of Lincoln at different phases of his life.
Finally, you make a turn and stop. There is his grave marker. His wife and three sons are buried there, also; their markers are on the wall opposite his. (The fourth son, Robert–the one who had his mother committed to a mental institution–is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, his wife’s decision.)
William took it all in. The significance wasn’t lost on him. Should he return when he’s older? Absolutely. History is learned in layers. But we laid a good foundation.
So, what about the corn dogs?
You’re wondering if we ever ate. Of course we did! When it was time for dinner, we headed to Cozy Dog Drive-In. It’s right on Route 66, so the 50s vibe resonates.
Operating since 1949, it’s where the “hot dog on a stick” was born. The prices are still in the 1950s: $2.15 for a cozy dog! How crazy is that?!? We each had one and I’m here to tell you that it beats any corn dog anywhere. A little honey in the batter, and fried up perfectly. The fresh-cut fries were crisp and each onion ring was a work of art–and a bargain at $2.50. No, nothing healthy for this meal and we didn’t care. Our entire bill was around $12. I left a hefty tip to reward the workers who keep things running during this uncertain time.
Springfield, Illinois, is known for other famous foods: the Horseshoe sandwich, Made Right sandwiches, and the enormous pancakes at Charlie Parker’s. Sadly, we didn’t have time to make the rounds. Next time, we agreed.
And then we headed home…
We stayed at a carefully-selected hotel. Certified clean and all. No amenities these days. Breakfast? No. Pool? No. Just a room, but kids love staying in a hotel, just because it’s different. And we were smart enough to bring our own snacks.
As we drove back, we chatted about our adventure. We reviewed some Lincoln history and what we learned. Then I asked, “What did you like best, William?”
He didn’t skip a beat. “The Cozy Dog. I wish we could go back”