Sunday, January 14, 2007

Thirty hours in Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois

Ten days ago Little Marathon Pundit and I travelled to Springfield, the capital of Illinois, and of course, the hometown of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

A while back, I received a chain letter e-mail titled "You can tell if you're from Chicago if..."

One of the replies was, "You've never been to Springfield."

Such was the case with this lifetime Chicago area resident until ten days ago.

Last fall, en route to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, the Marathon Pundit family visited the Abraham Lincoln sites in Kentucky. We saw the birthplace site, and the rebuilt cabin and farm-plot where the Lincolns lived from 1811-1816.

That whetted the appetite of my daughter, 10 year-old Little Marathon Pundit. She told me that during the recent Christmas break that she wanted to travel to Springfield.

Mrs. Marathon Pundit had to work, so it would be just the two of us.

Approaching Springfield from the north on Interstate 55 makes chronological sense in regards to the life of Abraham Lincoln. The future president first lived apart from family in the short-lived town of New Salem--which is just south of Petersburg in Menard County.

Lincoln lived in New Salem--the abandoned town has been rebuilt and is a state historical site--from 1831-1840. Lincoln had a series of different jobs while living in there: railsplitter, storekeeper, state legislator, and surveyor. During his stint as a surveyor, Lincoln mappped out the aforementioned village of Petersburg.

That's Little Marathon Pundit in front of a rebuilt New Salem structure.

New Salem has an excellent visitors center, a small museum, and a 200 person capacity theater which shows a twenty minute video about Lincoln's time there.

The theater looks like it's built for the convenience of students on field trips from St. Louis, Peoria, or Champaign. Most schools were on break two weeks ago--Little Marathon Pundit and I were the only ones there watching the video.

To appreciate the Springfield Lincoln--and the presidential Lincoln--it's a good idea to include New Salem--located just twenty miles northwest of Springfield--on your itinerary.

After New Salem, it was on to Springfield. In the wintertime, many of the Lincoln sites close at either 4:00pm or 5:00pm, so since we arrived in Springfield shortly before 4:00pm, we just drove through the town.

Besides being the state capital--and its Lincoln heritage--Springfield is known for one other thing, its contribution to the culinary world, the horseshoe sandwich.

In the late 1990s, I briefly worked at a downtown Chicago hotel owned by a man who wanted to make the horseshoe sandwich the signature dish of his inn. During my time there, I had my one and only horseshoe.

There are variations on the recipe, but the sandwich consists of two hamburger patties (or slices of ham) on a couple of slices of Texas toast, smothered by Welsh rarebit sauce and a massive pile of french fries. It's a cholesterol bomb and a colon killer.

Luckily for the already-challenged waistlines of Chicagoans, the horseshoe never caught on at the hotel, so the sandwich that seems to be thrown together from other dishes remains contained within the Springfield area.

Driving through Springfield, you're reminded of the horseshoe sandwich. The city doesn't have a consistent architectural style and it really isn't much to look at. Oh, there are nice buildings here and there, but the good parts don't add up to much.

But we were in Springfield to see the good parts.

We stayed that night in a hotel on the southern end of Springfield, amidst a bunch of labor union offices, but in reality probably lobbying outposts set up to influence the city's chief export: government.

The next day, Little Marathon Pundit and I made the Abraham Lincoln home, pictured on the right, our first stop.

I blogged about that part of the trip in greater detail here. The only home Lincoln ever owned isn't very big, we were in and out of the house in about twenty minutes.

Then on to the centerpiece of all-that-in-Lincoln in Springfield: The Abraham Presidential Library and Museum. The complex opened in 2005. Supporters view the museum as fun and interactive, scholars sneer at it, calling it "Disney-fied." The museum and library was originally planned as a modest tribute to the Great Emancipator, however, the "Disney" element took over and the finished product came in way over budget.

A week ago I blogged about the politics of the Lincoln museum, which you'll find here.

That being said, the museum is terrific, worth every dollar over budget. Damn the scholars, but we live in a time where people expect to be entertained while learning. Not a lot of people can be expected to pull off Interstate 55 just to see Lincoln's eyeglasses. The museum is well visited, the day after Little Marathon Pundit and I were there, the 1 millionth visitor walked through it's entrance.

There we are among the "Disney" Lincoln family mannequins. On the far left is a lurking John Wilkes Booth.

A couple of theater presentations offer talking holograms--one features ghostly images of soldiers as well as Lincoln.

A history professor may not like it, but on the other hand, there are more ten year-old kids out there than history professors. Besides, the professors would expect to be let in for free.

Another interesting exhibit is of Tim Russert's "television coverage" of the contentious, four-way 1860 presidential race.

Across the street from the museum, which disgraced Ill. Governor George Ryan dedicated in 2002--but it didn't open until 2004--is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. It's a scholar's haven there, with millions of pages of Lincoln and other Illinois historical documents.

After the library, we headed over to the Old State Capitol, and across the street to Lincoln's Law Office.

By the time we left the office, it was almost 5:00pm, and most of the Lincoln site were closed--So it was time to head home.

There are things we missed: They include the current state capitol building, Lincoln's tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, a Frank Lloyd Wright Home, the governor's mansion, and a lot of neat little diners that may--or may not--serve horseshoe sandwiches. Route 66 went through Springfield, and some local businesses, looking beyond Lincoln, are attracting venturers from the Mother Road.

Those we'll catch next time. Yes, we'll be back.

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BenignaMarko said...

How cool is that. Going through all the old stuff.
Benigna Marko

Craig said...

That Frank Lloyd Wright house is really stunning, even if it does look a little bunker-like on the outside. Check it out when you go back.