A Mom's Guide to the Land of Lincoln
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A story our kids should know
Mention Abraham Lincoln to little kids, and they pretty much think big hat. And pennies. Maybe something about slavery. Certainly not the focus of a cool summer getaway.
But as an Illinoisan, I can't help but think that the 16th president's story is one my 8-year-old son, Seth, ought to know.
Lincoln just might be history's best role model. He had a mind of his own and loved to read. He overcame prejudices to see race in a new way. Always humble, he stuck to his principles.
Lincoln's larger-than-life legend as the president who preserved the union and freed the slaves is almost too monumental to model. Illinois, which witnessed Lincoln's maturation from barefoot farm boy to president, has a human-scale story to tell.
I want Seth to hear it, and I want to make this a fun summertime road trip, so I ask my friend Kim and her 7-year-old daughter, Ella, to join us.
"What do you know about Honest Abe?" I ask the kids as we hit the interstate. "He became president and helped with slavery," Seth says. "He wears a tall hat," Ella offers. OK, then.
Pictured: Heading for the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln served as a member of the Illinois legislature.
Frontier life in New Salem
Our first stop: New Salem Historic Site in Petersburg, 20 miles northwest of Springfield. In 1831, a 22-year-old Lincoln moved to this town, a sort of frontier shopping center servicing farmers with a post office, cooperage, blacksmith, cobbler, general stores and tavern.
None of us had heard about this indecisive, six-year phase in Lincoln's life, when he dabbled as a store owner, postmaster, soldier and surveyor, all while impressing the locals with his good humor. But an entire village of re-enactors--weavers, blacksmiths, wool spinners, gardeners and more--helps us understand the era with a lively portrait of frontier life.
The kids connect by twirling the simple wood tops cherished by children of the era. We all take a lesson in multiplication at the "blab school," named for its oral lessons. "Twice one is two, the book is very new," we recite. "Twice two is four, throw it on the floor..."
Moms say Discovered Lincoln was a jack-of-all-trades. Loved the work and craft demonstrations, which illustrate the difficulty of living then.
Kids say Liked the people dressed up from olden times. But they talked like us, which seemed weird. We wish there would have been a house of Lincoln's here to look at.
A twilight 'ghost walk'
In Springfield, we meet guide Garret Moffett for a twilight walking tour. Holding a candle-lit lantern across from the imposing Old State Capitol, the dramatic Moffett promises a 90-minute walk from the building where Lincoln gave his "House Divided" speech, with haunted stories all along the way.
Kim and I are wary of the potential frights, but the kids are fascinated by descriptions of phantom carriages, Lincoln's premonition of his death and the attempted grave robbery at Lincoln's tomb.
Moms say Loved guide's in-depth knowledge. Storytelling in front of the Lincoln sites was transporting.
Kids say Kind of spooky, but cool. We learned Lincoln kept his letters in his hat.
More Lincoln lore
We're now immersed in Lincoln lore. We see the Old State Capitol and Lincoln's home.
We're fascinated by Lincoln's self-education and his versatility and surprised that he was a permissive parent. We hear that Lincoln allowed his boys to have ink-bottle fights at his law offices. When we tour Lincoln's home, Seth and Ella envision themselves roughhousing on the parlor floor.
OLD STATE CAPITOL
Moms say Impressive building, a real step back in time to the place where Lincoln gave his famous "House Divided" speech in Springfield.
Kids say Cool dome. Loved climbing on the wrought-iron fence.
Moms say Lovely Springfield neighborhood for traffic-free strolls. Amazing period restoration inside the house; it looks like the 1860s.
Kids say I was so excited to be actually walking in a president's house! And I can't believe Lincoln had an outhouse!
Throughout our trip, Ella has been quietly leaving pennies behind, like memorial tokens. But rather than leave one at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, she finds one on the marble floor, planted there for treasure-hunters like her, just the beginning of the surprises here.
A Tim Russert newscast dissects the four candidates for president in 1860. A gallery features the faces of dozens of people arguing about emancipation. The kids gape in disbelief at a re-creation of the tiny one-room cabin where Lincoln and 10 of his family members lived.
Somber rooms devoted to the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's casket give us a chance to talk to Seth and Ella about equality, dissent and sacrifice. When the conversation gets a little too deep, we retreat to Mrs. Lincoln's Attic, where kids can play with Lincoln Logs and try on period clothes.
PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
Moms say Inventive presentations brilliantly tell the story of Lincoln's life. Expect weepy moments in the Gettysburg Address room and alongside the casket.
Kids say Ella: Love the White House dresses. Seth: Love the electronic maps showing the progress of the Civil War battles. Both: Fun to dress up and play with old toys in Mrs. Lincoln's Attic.
A somber stop
On our way out of Springfield, we stop at Lincoln's Tomb. A towering obelisk and statue announce the burial place. We walk through hushed marble halls.
Moms say Didn't realize that Lincoln was buried in Springfield, along with his wife, Mary, and three of his four sons. The 117-foot-tall tomb has a rotunda and corridors containing Lincoln statues and plaques with excerpts from his speeches. This was moving and powerful, a real chance to reflect.
Kids say Serious and quiet inside. Great hills to roll down outside.
Voices of the past and future
We head to the Lincoln Log Cabin in Lerna, 110 miles southeast of Springfield. This simple spot, once home to dad Thomas and stepmom Sarah Lincoln, is remote, but the kids quickly warm to it.
"Abraham comes to hear law cases in Charleston, takes a note for his fee and gives it to me to claim. He is a dutiful son," says Thomas, aka Lance Beever, who acts the part of living in 1845, speaking in the first person.
Inside the tidy, two-room cabin, a woman makes biscuits using vintage "receipts" or recipes. Outside, "Sarah" demonstrates weaving. "Thomas" strums a guitar.
The play-acting delights the kids. Ella quietly slides a penny on the Lincolns' table when we leave as if to say, in a voice from the future, that he lives. I'm happy to see the kids immersing themselves in Lincoln's era, seeing how Lincoln's humble beginnings didn't keep him from greatness.
LINCOLN LOG CABIN
Moms say Beautiful rural setting. Got planting ideas from the pretty heirloom garden. Liked talking to the actors (left), who seemed as though they were genuinely from the 19th century.
Kids say It was like living back then.
Our getaway was focused in Springfield, with side trips to Lerna and Petersburg.
Fun places to eat with kids in Springfield include the Cozy Dog Drive In, a Route 66 stop where corn dogs rule, and Saputo's, a family-owned Italian spot that's great for kids and grown-ups. Families will enjoying staying in the Hilton Springfield, which has comfortable rooms in a 30-story downtown hotel with a Bennigan's restaurant and the thing kids love best: a swimming pool.