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.


Biden and the Jews: Strong ties and friendly disagreements

DENVER (JTA)—Before he announced his vice presidential pick on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he wanted someone to spar with but who ultimately would be loyal enough to create a comfortable working relationship.

No one knew then that he had picked U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), 65, but his ISO ad fit Biden’s relationship with the Jewish community perfectly.

The loquacious Biden, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1973, has sparred frequently with the pro-Israel community and with Israelis, particularly on the issue of settlements. But he has a sterling voting record on pro-Israel issues, and has as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helped shepherd through key pro-Israel legislation.

His straightforwardness is considered an asset, even among those supporters who have disagreed with him.

“He’s open minded, he votes his own conscience,” said Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer who has backed Biden among other politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. “I don’t always agree with him” but “he does not try to sugarcoat.”

Biden has been especially sharp in criticizing the U.S. and Israeli failure to support Mahmoud Abbas in 2003, when he was the Palestinian Authority prime minister attempting to establish a power base to challenge then-president Yasser Arafat. Abbas was eventually sidelined by Arafat, allowing the Palestinian leader to continue his policies of corruption and stasis until his death—and creating a vacuum ultimately filled in large part by Hamas terrorists.

Biden’s longstanding relationship with the Jewish community should reassure Jews who still feel anxious about Obama, who has deep ties to the Chicago Jewish community but who has been on the national stage barely four years, said Cameron Kerry.

“I’ve seen the enormous respect he commands in the pro-Israel community,” said Kerry, himself a convert to Judaism and a senior adviser to the 2004 presidential campaign of his brother, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).“He has a well-established record, he knows the issues, and he can talk the talk. He’s may be the best goyische surrogate I’ve seen in the Jewish community.”

Biden’s son married into a Jewish family, but his keen interest in the region dates back to his first visit as a U.S. senator, not long before the 1973 Yom Kippur. He met Israel’s then-prime minister, Golda Meir.

He came away from that meeting understanding that “there is this inextricable tie between culture, religion, ethnicity that most people don’t fully understand—that is unique and so strong with Jews worldwide,” Biden said in an interview with Shalom TV last year, when he launched his own presidential bid. “When I was a young senator, I used to say, ‘If I were a Jew I’d be a Zionist.’ I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.’”

Mark Gittenstein, who worked for Biden from 1976-1989, said no one matched his breadth of knowledge on Israel—not even his Jewish staffers. “He was much more knowledgeable about Israel and its problems than I was.”

Biden has a keen understanding of the Holocaust, partly because of his relationship with Tom Lantos, the late California Democratic congressman who was the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Biden hired Lantos as an adviser in the late 1970s, a leap into politics that led the Hungarian-born economist to consider a political career.

At a memorial service for Lantos in February, Biden cracked up the somber crowd recalling how Lantos marveled at his son-in-laws very Middle American names. “My daughters married Aryans,” Biden recalled Lantos as saying.

More substantively, his tutoring by Lantos led Biden to take the lead on genocide issues, and he is currently a champion on efforts to isolate Sudan over the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in its restive Darfur province.
“Any country that engages in genocide forfeits their sovereignty,” he said to applause at a National Jewish Democratic Council presidential candidate forum last year.

Obama, who has been outspoken in opposing the Iraq war, had considered a number of centrist and conservative Democrats as running mates to balance his own dovishness. Picking Biden, also a war critic, allows Republicans to describe the Democratic ticket as much of a muchness.

Among Republican Jews, that means scoring both men for opposing some of the tougher anti-Iran measures embraced by the Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and some Democrats, including Obama’s chief primaries rival, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)

“With the selection of Senator Joe Biden as Senator Obama’s vice president, the Democrats’ ticket has now become an even greater gamble for the Jewish community,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement Saturday, hours after Obama made his announcement. “Biden has failed to recognize the serious threat that Iran poses to Israel and the US and its allies in the Middle East.”

In response, Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that focusing on recent differences over nuances regarding Iran policy missed the larger point of Biden’s long years of commitment to Israel.

“The RJC would criticize the Democratic pick for vice president if it was Ben Gurion,” Forman said. “There is no one you could possibly pick who knows the issues, who is committed to Israel’s security and knows Israeli leaders as much as Joe Biden.”