The Illinois State Fair, held in Springfield, is one of the country’s largest. We arrived too late to visit the fair, but took advantage of their large and mostly empty campground. I asked the camp hosts how the Fair was this year and they replied in unison, “Terrible!” It was in fact a disaster, qualifying for a FEMA rescue. On opening day the fairgrounds had 5 inches of rain in 90 minutes. There was so much rain so quickly it blew the manhole covers off the sewers. Carnival vendors and livestock exhibitors who were camped in a low-lying area had all their equipment destroyed by flood and the fair closed down for several days. When we arrived a week later there were still deep muddy ruts in the grass where RVs had to be towed out.
We started our tour of Abe Lincoln’s Springfield backwards – by visiting his tomb first. The fairgrounds is a few blocks from the historic district and we walked down tree-lined streets, past tidy houses built in the 1900’s, to Oak Ridge Cemetery where Lincoln’s tomb is located. The towering obelisk is flanked by enormous bronze statues commemorating the Armed Forces under Lincoln’s command – Calvary, Artillery, Navy, and Infantry. Sixty-five cannons left over from the Civil War were melted down to create these statues. The marbled interior of the monument contains Lincoln’s tomb and the resting place for his wife and several children.
Downtown Springfield is a dozen blocks from the fairgrounds; a perfect motorcycle ride through shady neighborhoods into the State Capitol area. Straddling Sixth and Jefferson Streets is a large complex, the Abraham Lincoln President Library and Museum. We entered the museum, and I was expecting it to be yet another dusty yawn of facts and figures. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Without exaggeration, this is the best historical museum we’ve seen. The presentation and displays were lively, intimate, stirring, and clever. The museum drew us in and held our rapt attention for over two hours. The experience begins in the lobby where costumed docents wander freely to greet you. Lincoln’s history unfolds in a series of display rooms from his early days as a pioneer settler to his path to the White House. Life size figures are in fully decorated rooms that place you directly within the scene, instead of merely being a viewer. The windows blew a cold draft, the wood stove was warm to the touch, snores are heard from under the coverlets. And the figures were the best I’ve ever seen. You could nearly reach up and catch a tear falling from a slave’s eye.
Each diorama was staged down to the tiniest detail, such as scraps on the floor, flickering lights, and street sounds coming from the windows. One room presented the entirety of Civil War battles on an animated map, from beginning to end, in four minutes. I was quite moved with the funeral room, which recreated Lincoln lying in state in the Springfield State Capitol. There were also two theater presentations that were simply astonishing, including a holographic actor and theater seats that rumbled with sound effects. First class and better than Disney.
Traveling a few blocks south is Abe & Mary’s two-story home where they lived for many years. Their house and the surrounding four blocks of the neighborhood are preserved as a National Park Monument. Free tours are available through the Lincoln home and 80% of the furnishings are original to the Lincoln’s.
We stopped at a slightly more modern historic spot for lunch – Cozy Dog Drive In. This roadside diner was on the original Route 66 highway and claims to have invented the corn dog. We ordered six.
Springfield is a big town, population 117,000, but we were content concentrating on just the historic parts. It’s our History Lesson Summer Tour.