As we drove the 200-miles from Chicago to Springfield, I was excited to see how Springfield in the turbulent 1840s and 1850s shaped Abraham Lincoln into the man who would become President and I was excited to share this Owen. The main objective of our visit was the National Park Service’s Lincoln Home National Historic Site, but we were also interested in the Old State Capitol where he gave his “House Divided” speech, the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Following our urban boondocking in Chicago, we knew wanted hook-ups, but being mid-November our options were fairly limited. We considered the State Fairgrounds (no water until spring), a KOA (closed for the season), a local private RV Park, and a nearby State Park. Because we prefer public to private campgrounds, we ended up choosing the State Park (Sangchris Lake State Park).
Located 17-miles southwest of Springfield’s historic area, the 3,000 acre Sangchris Lake State Park has two campgrounds and is located in a fairly rural area southeast of Springfield on the shores of Sangchris Lake, a man-made power station cooling lake constructed in 1964. We stayed at the very nice Hickory Point campground (which was the only one open during our November stay) located on the northeastern arm of the lake. Other than the campground host and a dozen or so other rigs, we had the park to ourselves. While we didn’t have full hook-ups, we did have 50-amp electric (so we could run both heat pumps!), water, and access to a very convenient and nice dump station. We pulled in on a sunny and beautiful Monday afternoon (November 6th) and immediately dumped our grey and black tanks, topped off our fresh water tank, and easily found a spacious and level site that was close enough to the bath house and far enough away from the other guests to be comfortable. On Tuesday morning (November 7th) we awoke to what was becoming a familiar cold, grey day. We bundled up and headed into Springfield to begin our explorations at the Historic Site Visitor Center.
Situated in the heart of the historic downtown area, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site preserves the neighborhood around the home that Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln purchased in 1844, about one year after they married. While sparse, the visitor center does have a few antiques and relics from the Lincolns’ life in Springfield, as well as the ubiquitous NPS gift shop, a convenient pay parking lot, and two theaters for two NPS movies (one well-done movie about the life of Lincoln and a second about the home—Owen enjoyed both). Our usual modus operandi is to checkout the visitor center to get the lay of the land, watch the movie with Owen to help acquaint him the background information, and then start exploring. However, we arrived at the visitor center just in time for the next home tour, so we shook up our usual routine and headed into the neighborhood area to await our tour.We spent about 45-minutes touring the Lincolns’ home with a park ranger and another couple. The tour was very thorough and the house is amazingly well preserved. It was humbling to stand in the parlor where their son Eddie’s funeral service was held and Lincoln was later told by a group of Illinois Republicans that they wanted to nominate him as their Presidential nominee. After touring the home and walking around the neighborhood, we returned to the visitor center to watch the two NPS movies and do a little work on Owen’s Junior Ranger booklet. After the movies, we walked a few blocks northwest to the Old State Capitol and then to the Presidential Library and Museum.
At the Old State Capitol, Lincoln served as a State Legislator and campaigned against Douglas for the U.S. Senate. Our timing was off and we missed the guided tour, but had a wonderful time wandering the halls in self-guided tour mode. I can’t improve upon the Illinois.gov Old State Capital website’s building description of the Old Capitol and it’s importance in Lincoln’s life, so I’ll quote it here:
“The building served as the seat of state government and a center of Illinois political life from 1839 to 1876. During the dramatic years leading to the Civil War, the building had an important role in the political struggle between Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Lincoln visited the building frequently as both a lawyer and a politician, serving in the building during his last term in the Illinois House of Representatives and delivering the famous 1858 ‘House Divided’ speech in Representatives Hall, and using the governor’s rooms as a headquarters during the 1860 presidential campaign. The building was the scene of the assassinated President’s final laying-in-state on May 3-4, 1865.”
After the Old State Capitol, we walked to the Presidential Library and Museum to check it out. We walked into the Library’s foyer and were immediately accosted by a museum employee (or volunteer?) seeking to sell us a Membership. What on the surface appeared to be a kindly grandmother was, in fact, a geriatric used-car salesman that quickly pissed us off with her sweet-voiced, high-pressure sales tactics and completely turned us off to the prospect of visiting the Library and Museum. Additionally, we were still suffering a Chicago Museum Hangover. We were eventually able to tell her, “no thanks” and walked out to get lunch instead.
While eating lunch at a nice sandwich place, Owen managed to complete his Junior Ranger booklet, so afterwards we returned to the Visitor Center for his swearing-in. With his new badge in-hand, we hopped in the truck and wrapped up our Lincoln day at the amazing Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery.[i]
One of the goals for the Big Big Trip is to open our apertures and expose Owen to a broader world that will (hopefully) expand his perspective, build empathy, and develop his critical thinking skills. Owen already had a lot of exposure to Abraham Lincoln. Prior to our launch, while in kindergarten in Washington State, Owen learned about Lincoln, the Civil War, and Slavery without the bullshit of the Lost Cause mythology. During our explorations of Washington, D.C., as well as prior visits to Louisiana plantations and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, he was able to put those concepts into some context. At times, Owen may have found that walking around Springfield in Lincoln’s footsteps was tedious and boring on the seven-year-old level, but as we stood in front of this great man’s tomb at the end of the day, I could see in his eyes and hear in his words that he had gained something deeper than random facts and incomprehensible dates. I’m confident that our visit to the Land of Lincoln helped to solidify and give context to previous lessons. Based on conversations we’ve had in the weeks since our visit, that context has helped to nurture his sense of empathy. Without context, history can’t be understood and is just a series of dates and facts that doesn’t build empathy, doesn’t broaden perspective, becomes open to wide and inaccurate translation, and doesn’t do anyone any good whatsoever.
[i] While shorter than our usual stop, one day was more than enough for us to see and do what we wanted in Springfield. If we had the desire to tour the Presidential Library and Museum, an additional day would have been needed.