Visiting Springfield, Illinois: The Land of Lincoln and other Americana


People have preconceived notions and prejudices that prevent them from seeing cool places and interesting things in life. I grew up in Illinois. Back in the day, at least, all the public schools brought their students around 8th grade to Springfield, Illinois – the place where Abraham Lincoln lived in the only home he ever bought, practiced law, ran for office and eventually was buried. But I went to a private school that was more concerned with us reciting La Marseilles in perfect French, than seeing a Presidential library and museum in our own state. Later, when I moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I saw many battlefields of the Civil War. They’re extremely popular. But for some reason, people don’t talk about visiting Springfield . . . and they’re really missing out.

Getting there: I took a very modestly priced Amtrak from Chicago’s Union Station. Chicago is a big train hub, so you’re likely to be at the beginning of a long haul trip, with classic sleeper cars, full service dining cars with freshly made food, observation decks, ladies’ lounges. Along the way, you see what others ignorantly refer to as “flyover country,” including the funny stadium for the Frontier League Joliet Slammers. Another way you can go: drive or ride. The famous Route 66 goes right through the center of town.

Where to stay: High atop “Aristocracy Hill” sits an inn — Inn at 835 — that used to serve as apartments for movers and shakers and indeed, still features long-term residences for them. After all, Springfield is Illinois’ capital; legislators from here have gone far up the political ladder. The place was conceived and designed over 100 years ago by a high-society florist. It’s still very grand! Rooms are very spacious, some with a butler’s pantry filled with books, Jacuzzi with heat lamp, four-poster bed, gorgeous antiques. Wine and cheese is left out for guests downstairs, but they bring cookies in a basket to your door at night. They provide a free shuttle from the Amtrak station until 8:30 pm.

What to do: See how Lincoln and his family actually lived at the Lincoln Home, a national historic site. He expanded the premises as his success and prosperity grew. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is simply outstanding! I started out at its fantastic gift shop. The museum’s permanent exhibit takes you through life-sized recreations of his log cabin home, his law office, and political ascent. Walk through the whispering gallery of political sniping from both ends of the spectrum – just like elections today! – and nasty gossip against Mary Todd Lincoln. Feel yourself attending the play at Ford’s Theater. We all know how it ends . . . but I wasn’t prepared for the stunning majesty of the darkened recreation of the closed casket in the Representatives Hall in Springfield’s Old State Capitol. Today, we are reminded that Lincoln’s catafalque was lent by Congress for Justice Scalia’s funeral.

Of course, there’s no substitute for the real thing. President Lincoln is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Also in town is his law office, which had a business-friendly location by the courthouse and right on what is now Route 66.

Edwards Place is the oldest remaining structure in Springfield. The Edwards were Illinois’ most powerful political family, with one serving as the first Governor when Illinois became a state after serving as Kentucky’s Chief Justice on the Court of Appeals. Illinois was originally settled mostly by Kentuckians and this family crossed the Ohio River with their slaves. Another Edwards was the first person born in Illinois to graduate from Yale. Their home is beautifully restored, with many interesting archeological finds.

Art and architecture enthusiasts will be fascinated with the Dana-Thomas house, an early example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design. At the time, Wright was young and not as well known enough to totally impose his will upon homeowners, but he managed to ink some covenants. The lady of the house had enough money and social clout to include some of her Art Nouveau era preferences, so the fusion here is one-of-a-kind.

Springfield has a cute, thriving main street. There are several quality antique stores; Abe’s Old Hat has several rooms, each with its own specialty and vibe. Check out such Americana finds like feed sacks upcycled into men’s ties and cornbread scented candles.

A small town has got to consider itself sweet with two independently owned candy stores, both with Depression-era origins. Pease’s is older by a tad; their specialty is chocolates made to look like actual designer shoes! Del’s Popcorn Shop is now located next to the Lincoln-Herndon law office, with a real old-timey feel inside. They have all kinds of flavors of freshly popped corn, which feels like the perfect snack to crunch on in Illinois, plus it makes an inexpensive souvenir gift.

Where to eat: Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery & Eatery is located in a rehabbed historic home, owned by direct descendants of neighbors of Abraham Lincoln. They brew the freshest beer in town and also have excellent locally made, fruit forward cider. Their growlers are so cute, with tributes to Lincoln and Route 66, I happily paid for plastic boxes and checked luggage to bring some cider home. They’ve got a real gastropub thing going, with highly flavorful offerings like spicy cheesy soup, an old family recipe for 15 spice chili and Scotch eggs.

D’Arcy’s Pint is an Irish pub that’s enormously popular. They serve bar food as well as the famous Springfield Horseshoe. Lots of cities have a beloved big sandwich, this is theirs. It’s generally slices of thick Texas toast, topped with meat, French fries and cheese sauce. You can get veggies or hotdogs on it . . . even Midwestern walleye!

American Harvest Eatery is a new restaurant little bit up the road from the state capital building, so it’s not quite run over by lobbyists yet. While still finding its footing when I was there, they have an admirable concept: using the foodstuffs of Illinois to re-create comfort food favorites.

I saw a Quonset in the middle of nowhere and wondered how it could be a restaurant. Well, Charlie Parker’s Diner is world-famous and has been featured on the Food Network many times! It’s a fun, 50’s party atmosphere with that kind of classic menu.

Anecdotally, I wondered in the land of farms if things like heirloom tomatoes, etc., were popular. It turns out, not so much: commercial agriculture earnings are so crucial, people aren’t playing around with specialized, small-yield crops here.

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln life-like figures at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Figures of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Recreation of the scene at Ford’s Theater at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

President Abraham Lincoln’s tomb Photo by Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

 

Historic Jewish merry-go-rounds up for sale


In a storage yard in Long Beach, painted ponies in rose garlands prance atop a giant wooden disc, waiting for a new owner.

The Illions Supreme Carousel, which twirled riders for decades at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona, is one of the most elaborate wooden carousels carved at the beginning of the last century by Marcus Charles Illions and his group of Jewish immigrant craftsmen.

If the current owner, a private collector, can’t find a buyer for the carousel — a city, museum or amusement park — the historic specimen of Jewish Americana could end up broken apart or shipped to Dubai, where the amusement park industry is flourishing and the weak dollar makes American cast-offs a bargain.

The Illions Supreme isn’t the only Jewishly carved carousel in jeopardy. On April 23 in Auberndale, Fla., Norton Auctioneers will take bids on a Coney Island merry-go-round created by European craftsmen trained in the art of carving Torah arks and bimahs.

The 45-foot diameter merry-go-round, carved in 1909 in the shop of William F. Mangels, with horses, giraffes, goats, camels and chariots, has been owned and operated by the same family for 93 years. It is expected to draw at least $500,000, but the auction has no minimum opening bid. Individual horses will not be sold to antiques collectors.

The Illions Supreme, which operated at the L.A. County Fairgrounds for about 40 years through the 1980s, is worth about $5 million. Illions carved only three Supremes, and this is the only one left, according to Daniel Horenberger of Brass Ring Entertainment in Sun Valley, which is selling the carousel for the private owner.

Illions Supremes are considered the most elaborate carousels ever carved, according to Roland Hopkins, editor of Carousel News. The wildly animated menageries and chariots are adorned with more than 10,000 pieces of gold leaf. Among those horses is the American Beauty Rose horse, a gold-maned white mare dripping with colorful roses featured on the cover of “Painted Ponies,” the definitive book about carousels.

Today, new carousels are made of fiberglass, often from molds made from the wooden classics. Many of the 200 extant antique carousels are owned by cities or big parks and are thus protected, but many others, such as the Illions, are in private hands and could be sold at any time.

“These are real pieces of history,” said Horenberger, who restores carousels at a shop in Long Beach, home to many past and current ride manufacturers. “These are hand-carved, wooden animals made one at a time by some of the greatest carvers of that time. They’re almost 100 years old, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Horenberger is working hard to find a home for these two carousels. While the Skirball Cultural Center expressed some interest in the Illions Supreme, occupancy restrictions and space limitations preclude operating a 50-foot diameter carousel.

But the Skirball does have other art from Illions in its permanent exhibition — two carved lions from atop a Torah ark, part of an exhibit on the carousel carvers in the permanent exhibit on the American Jewish experience.

Like most of the carousel artisans, Illions learned his craft carving Judaic ritual objects in his hometown of Vilna, where his father was in the horse trade, and later in England. Illions and other carvers created elaborate, towering wooden arks and bimas painted in bright colors for Europe’s famed wooden synagogues.

“These carvers came to American and they transformed their creative skills into making carousels and were part of that phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century of making wonderfully elaborate carousels,” said Grace Cohen Grossman, Skirball’s senior curator

An exhibit on this called “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses,” which just closed at the Folk Art Museum in New York, is the first to explore the link between the carvers’ ritual objects and amusement rides. The exhibit will travel to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., from May 24 to Sept. 1.

Illions moved to Southern California at the end of his career, bringing the Illions Supreme with him and landing it at the L.A. County Fairgrounds. Before he opened his own Coney Island shop in 1888, he worked for Charles I.D. Looff, a non-Jewish immigrant, who also moved his shop from Coney Island to Long Beach, where it operated at The Pike waterfront park from 1928 through the 1970s.

Looff had been the main carver for Mangels, where he built the carousel now up for auction in Florida, working alongside Jewish carvers Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein and Charles Carmel. Some of Carmel’s and Looff’s carvings sit atop the carousel in Griffith Park, built in 1926. Stein and Goldstein produced the largest carousels ever made — 60 feet in diameter, and created the merry-go-round still operating in New York’s Central Park.

The Florida carousel operated in Harvey’s Lake, Pa., for many years before it was moved to Florida. The owner now plans to retire on the proceeds of the sale. But Horenberger hopes someone will step forward to keep both the Florida carousel and the Illions Supreme not only in one piece, but in the hands of people who will appreciate its history.

“I hope someone can help save it,” he said of the Florida carousel. “I would hate to see that carousel lost. It’s just about 100 years old, and it would be sad to see it torn apart and broken down on its birthday, or to see it go overseas and lose a piece of American history.”

For more information, visit

Brass Ring Entertainment:

http://carousel.com/antique/supreme.html

Carousel News and Trade:

http://carouselnews.com/index.php?option=com_magazine&Itemid=66

Norton Auctioneers:

http://nortonauctioneers.com/upcoming.htm

Skirball Cultural Center:

http://www.skirball.org/index.php