By Dominic Degrazier
The Springfield, Illinois experience began with a two-hour delay at my home airport in Southern California. Finding out about this two-hour delay, I believe I made the best decision that any rational person of age would: I paid a visit to the airport pub.
As luck would have it, I sat down at the bar next to a lady from Chicago – PERFECT!! Here I knew I could begin my investigation into Springfield with an in-state person’s perspective.
I quickly 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, most clearly demonstrated when she explained, “Oh, it takes seven to eight hours of driving from Chicago to Springfield.”
I had just learned the night before from my friend that the drive takes a maximum of three and a half hours. So my airport pub time turned into my first little lesson of the weekend: While Springfield might be only three and a half hours away from Chicago, some people from Illinois considered it worlds apart. Time to find out why….
Land of the Corndog
I love little bits of trivia in life, and 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. 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 with a thick cheese sauce.
This cheese sauce, by the way, proved to be absolutely crucial in the judging of the sandwich by experienced Horseshoe eaters.
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’. I ate every last morsel of the HORSESHOE at one of the most popular ‘shoe’ spots: D’Arcy’s Pink, 661 West Stanford Avenue!
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.
The city has a small downtown with a nine-by-nine street grid set up. It is small, extremely clean and very easy to get around on foot. Close to the center of downtown there is a beautiful capitol building in the Capitol 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 restuarant and nightspots.
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 all I could about Lincoln. With this in mind, early Saturday morning my friend and I went outside of Springfield to New Salem – the location of Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin about 20 minutes from downtown.
Driving to the outside of town, the cornfields quickly took over — farm after farm as far as the eye could see. And extremely flat. When I say flat, I mean sincerely flat. I was told that the highest point of elevation in Illinois is 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. Having a ‘mound’ as the highest point in a state says it all I believe.
Driving along this flatness a thought struck me repeatedly struck me– I was in 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, to give a full presentation of the past village life.
I was disappointed, however. I had gone to New Salem to see one thing: Lincoln’s famed log cabin, the one I had always pictured and learned about in school. It was with great grief when I learned from one of the citizens (who was in an army uniform carrying a musket rifle with a top hat) that Lincoln never had his famed cabin there. That log cabin is in Kentucky — Abe’s birthplace. 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, though, as my Springfield buddy told me that he thought Lincoln’s cabin was there as well. Amazing what schooling can do to the brain. But 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 was 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 two 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 my favorite display, a time-lined and evolving Union/Confederate territory map during the entire Civil War.
My museum experience 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 slave times — especially when listening to the sentiments of Frederick Douglass and his opinion of Lincoln. This era was not so cut and dried as I had been taught.
After the short movie, we were drawn into an odd-shaped hall with multiple angled caricature pictures framed on the walls. These showed news clips of popular sentiment at the 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, we returned to 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 was an actor, was behind a slanted window glass on a stage reciting stories of Abe and the war. He was in a library and repeatedly opens books and narrating tales.
Holograms formed out of the books and explicitly showed what the actor was describing. Such impressive technology! Then, to top things off, something happened at the end (I don’t want to ruin the surprise!) that made me question what was real, and what was technically engineered — an amazing showcase used to describe an amazing era of our history.
The thought put into these presentations and displays was mind boggling. I can understand why the museum took three years to be completed. If you want to learn — or re-learn — about Lincoln and the times surrounding his presidency should visit this museum.
The reflection of Springfield now provokes thoughts of my nation’s history. It is where I first understood how close the United States came to becoming two nations, and how the vision and guidance of a Springfield, Illinois, citizen prevented this.
Lincoln and Springfield showed me a humble America, rooted in history. I am sincerely thankful that I got this firsthand lesson in Springfield, and did not change my mind abaout 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
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
221 S. 5th Street
American and Italian cuisine
212 S. 5th Street
Popular nightspot: 50 types beer incl. imports and microbreweries, full liquor bar, live bands and dancing
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
Dominic Degrazier is a freelance writer and photographer. Growing up in Southern California, he then moved east to Texas for university, and kept on moving east to London, Copenhagen, and San Sebastian after graduation. Hooked on the world, he then lived in Australia for a year, and travelled through parts of South America for another year. Visit his blog Moving Montevideo.