It can be tough to get kids interested in history. Movies help. So does seeing people dressed and working as their forebears might have. And that's what you'll find in central Illinois, the place President Abraham Lincoln called home throughout his adult life.
Daniel Day Lewis, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the 16th president, won't likely be walking the streets of Springfield, but there's a chance you'll see someone who looks a lot like him. That's because the town is home to two big industries: state government and Lincoln-related tourism.
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Take the kids to Springfield, where they can walk where Lincoln walked, learn about his life and times, and talk with the 16th president and his contemporaries in the form of costumed "interpreters" who answer questions as though it's still the 1800s -- always a great way to bring history alive for kids.
Walk where lincoln walked
Start your tour at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the only house Abe and Mary ever owned. It's now a national park, which means admission is free. But you have to pick up a ticket for a timed entry, so head to the visitors' center first thing the morning. Tickets do sell out, especially since the movie "Lincoln" revived interest in Lincoln's life, drawing visitors from around the world to central Illinois.
The rangers who conduct the tours know how to talk to kids. They point to the Spectrograph on the table in the Lincolns' parlor and tell kids it's the Lincolns' xBox, a line that is sure to elicit a few giggles from the grown-ups as well as the kids.
From there, head to the crown jewel of Lincoln memorabilia, the fabulous Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where kids can play dress-up in Mrs. Lincoln's Attic and imagine themselves reading before a fire just like Abe did growing up in Kentucky and Indiana.
The other half of the museum, which offers a graphic look at the horrors of slavery, can be a bit intense for younger kids, but is a powerful lesson in America's not-so-happy history for tweens, teens and adults. Not to be missed is the room that puts the four-way 1860 presidential campaign in the context of modern presidential election news coverage, with the late, great newscaster Tim Russert at the anchor desk.
Elsewhere in Springfield
A few blocks from the Lincoln Museum is the Old State Capitol Building where Lincoln uttered the famous Civil War-era words: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." There's not much to entertain kids inside, although the restoration is beautiful. It helps if you arrive when there is a costumed interpreter who can answer kids' questions about Abe and his climb to the top of the political heap.
If you are a real history buff, or your kids need a more intimate meeting with history, consider taking the Abe Lincoln Ghost Tour led by Garret Moffett, proprietor of Springfield Walks. The stories are less about ghosts and more about the legends and lore of Lincoln and his bride, Mary Todd, who held sťances in the White House. But it's worth $14 per person to hear Moffett recite Lincoln's words and explain why the president's coffin was opened five times after his death.
Next, walk a few blocks to the Lincoln-Herndon law office. There's not much to see in the law offices themselves, but the first-floor post office is worth a look. Show your uber-connected kids a "cross-hatch" letter in which the sender composed a one-page letter, then turned the paper a quarter turn and wrote a second full page of news -- a way to save money at a time when postage was very expensive and charged by weight.
Beyond downtown Springfield
Now it's time to head to the Lincoln Tomb on the north side of town. Lincoln arrived at this somber place only after 14 moves, one attempted grave robbing, and five coffin openings to ensure the president was actually inside the coffin (a fact we learned from Mr. Moffett on the ghost tour and confirmed with the docent at the tomb).
The last must-visit Lincoln site is 25 miles northwest of Springfield near Petersburg. Lincoln's New Salem is a reconstructed pioneer town made to look much as it did when Lincoln arrived in 1831 (with the modern addition of paved paths and ramps that make much of the site wheelchair-friendly). Most days during the summer and on weekends the rest of the year, costumed volunteers pose as teachers, weavers, blacksmiths, and shop keepers and demonstrate how such jobs would have been performed in Abe's time.
If you haven't seen it already, rent the movie before you go. It will help put the sites and experiences in context and give the whole Illinois Lincoln experience more meaning for you and your kids.
• Cindy Richards is the Editor-in-Chief for TravelingMom.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindyRichards for more tips and ideas about traveling with kids.