The Illinois Capital
The Springfield, Illinois experience began with a 2-hour delay at my home airport in Southern California. Finding out about this 2-hour delay, I then made the best decision that any rational person of age would: I paid a visit to the airport pub. As luck would have it, sitting next to me at the bar was a lady from Chicago – PERFECT!! Here I knew would begin my investigation into Springfield with an in-state person’s perspective. Quickly I realized the woman’s opinion of the city: “rural”, as she put it. But then I started to think later on that she did not know much about her capital (a fact I failed to remember a week earlier, thinking it was Chicago) most clearly demonstrated when she explained, “Oh, it takes 7-8 hours of driving from Chicago to Springfield.” Just the night before my friend living in Springfield said that the drive takes a maximum of 3.5 hours. So my airport pub time turned into my first little lesson of the weekend: While Springfield might be only 3.5 hours away from Chicago, some people from Illinois considered it world’s apart- time to find out why….
Land of the Corndog
Loving little bits of trivia in life, when I discovered these I was gleaming: Springfield is the home of the first corn dog (made at ‘Cozy Drive-In’ in 1946). On top of this, Cozy Drive-in is the world’s first drive-up window restaurant! The city’s food pride doesn’t stop there. Springfield has its very own sandwich: the Horseshoe. The Horseshoe can and will give you pleasure- a lot of pleasure that is.
Listen to the makeup: a piece of toast on a plate with a hearty hamburger patty resting on top, all underneath a mound of French fries that are lavishly covered at last with a cheese sauce not lacking in thickness. This cheese sauce, by the way, proved to be absolutely crucial in the judging of the sandwich by experienced Horseshoe eaters. As one can see, Springfield has some serious food- but they are up and with the healthy, modern times as the horseshoe is offered in a half portion, appropriately, called the ‘Pony’. Hmm…- I ate every last morsel of the HORSESHOE at one of the most popular ‘shoe’ spots: D’Arcy’s Pink, 661 West Stanford Avenue!
But I got ahead of myself with Springfield’s food bragging rights (clearly food is one of my favorites!). Horseshoe town startled me when I awoke at my friend’s house located just outside of downtown. Upon my first view of the front yard and street beyond my reaction was an audible, “Wow”. Never had I seen such vibrantly colored trees in my life! These leaves looked verifiably artificial to me as they were so varied in tones and amazingly gorgeous. During my weekend there, I made more than a few comments on random trees we passed (without thinking), only to hear my friend’s cackling at how I was so amazed.
The city has a small downtown with a nine by nine street grid set up. It is extremely clean, and due to its compact size,very easy to get around on foot. Close to the center of downtown is the beautiful capital building in the Capital Complex, various libraries, Abe Lincoln’s newly opened museum, and a few ‘trendy’ feeling blocks to go restaurant and bar hopping. Walking on 5th and 6th streets in between Monroe and Adams are an array of spots including:
Café Brio: corner of Monroe and 6th street
Modern cuisine such as ahi salads, blackened chicken sandwiches; 7 types of margaritas
El Presidente Burrito: opposite of Café Brio on 6th street
6 types of burritos, nachos, soups – Californian style Mexican food
Sebastian’s: 221 S. 5th Street
American and Italian cuisine
Floyds: 212 S. 5th Street
Popular nightspot: 50 types beer incl. imports and microbreweries, full liquor bar, live bands and dancing
Alamo: 115 N. 5th Street
Mexican food lunches 11am-2pm; friendly pub atmosphere offering live music by nighttime hours
Sammy’s Sports Bar: 217 S. 5th Street
Classic sports bar with many televisions and good pub food
After walking through the downtown area, if one doesn’t realize that this is Abraham Lincoln’s hometown then they are…well, unaware. His pictures, museum, signs, statues, library, homes and more are constant reminders throughout the city. Knowing that I was visiting the hometown of an American legend and key figure in our history, I knew I wanted to learn- and relearn- all I could about Lincoln. With this in mind, early Saturday morning we traveled outside of Springfield to New Salem – the location of Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin only about 20 minutes from downtown. Driving to the outside of town, the cornfields quickly took over. Not that these fields had corn growing in them (it had just been harvest time), but there was farm after farm as far as the eye could see- and extremely flat. When I say flat, that means sincerely flat. The highest point of elevation in Illinois was reputed to be around 200 feet above sea level! Later I found out that a mound, Charles Mound to be exact, is the highest point at 1,235 feet (but having a ‘mound’ as the highest point in a state says it all I believe). Driving along this flatness a thought struck me, and repeatedly struck me- the Heartland. This was the Heartland, no doubt about it. And don’t think that automobile commercial wasn’t incessantly playing through my head.
Having soaked in the drive for 20 minutes, we arrived at the log village. It was here, in 1831, that 28-year-old Lincoln settled and ultimately began his law and political future. New Salem has been completely reconstructed and on weekends has ‘village citizens’ hanging around the town in the clothes of Lincoln’s day, allowing for the full effect of the past village life. I was honestly disappointed, however, having truly come to New Salem to see one thing: Lincoln’s famed log cabin that I had always pictured and learned about in school. It was a grievous moment when one of the citizens (who was in an army uniform carrying a musket rifle with a top hat) told me that Lincoln never had his famed cabin there. That log cabin is in Kentucky- Abe’s birthplace- while he never owned his own cabin in New Salem, but rather continually slept in varying friends’ cabins. I didn’t feel too bad about my lack of knowledge (again) though my Springfield buddy told me he thought Lincoln’s cabin was there as well. Amazing what schooling can do to the brain. All done, seeing the beginnings of Abe’s career and cruising through the heartland to reach New Salem made the journey well worth the very minimal effort.
A Further History Lesson
Our Lincoln day had just begun. Getting back into Springfield, we stopped at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum that recently opened in April 2005. This museum enchants the visitor with an onslaught of history and the prevailing times of the Civil War. To give perspective here: I do not enjoy most museums and find myself doing whatever I can after 20 minutes to entertain myself in most of them. On this particular day I spent 2 hours with Lincoln in his museum, which seemed like only 20 minutes! Never have I been presented with so much information in a dazzling feast of visuals, movies, hologram presentations, wax models, and probably my favorite display being a time lined and evolving Union/Confederate territory map during the entire Civil War.
We began with the 20-minute movie called “Lincoln’s Eyes”. This movie not only scared me with the daunting sound system through war scenes, but also exposed me to the various angles of the slavery times- especially when listening to the sentiments of Frederick Douglas and his opinion of Lincoln. This era was not so cut and dry as I had previously been taught. After the movie, we were drawn into an odd shaped hall with multiple angled caricature pictures framed on the walls. They display news clips reflecting the sentiment of people in this time concerning Lincoln and his actions. Abe Lincoln clearly did not have an easy term- it was abundantly obvious he was getting heat and criticism from all sides. Sliding through this, past some wax figures and voices of the times giving their respective takes, got us back in the common area of the museum just in time to see “Ghost of the Library”. This presentation is a baffler- at least it was to me. An actor, or what I thought to be an actor, was behind a slanted window glass on a stage reciting stories of Abe and the war. He is in a library and repeatedly opens books and narrates tales. Holograms form out of the books and explicitly show what the actor is describing. Such impressionable technology no doubt! Then to top things off, something happens at the end (I don’t want to ruin the surprise!) that made me question what exactly was real, and what was technically engineered. An amazing showcase used to describe just as an amazing part of our history. The thought put into these presentations and displays was mind boggling – easily understandable why the museum took 3 years to be completed. For anyone who wants to learn [re-learn] about Lincoln and the times surrounding his presidency, I implore you to visit this museum- you will not be let down.
The reflection of Springfield now provokes thoughts of my nation’s history. It is where I first understood how truly close we came to being two nations, if not in large part for the vision and guidance of a Springfield, Illinois citizen. Lincoln and Springfield showed me a humble America, rooted with the confidence of the history from where we came. I am sincerely thankful for this first-hand lesson and did not change my mind in visiting the ‘rural’ place after speaking to the Chicago bar lady.
And of course, my life will never be the same after demolishing that piece of art, the Horseshoe….
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
212 North Sixth Street
Monday – Sunday: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Wednesday: 9:00 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
7.50 adult tickets/ children 5-15 3.50 / under 5 free