It’s been almost 10 years since I tried my first horseshoe - a hulking Springfield food assemblage that involves an open-face sandwich (it could be beef, a buffalo chicken patty, portobello mushroom, fish or other protein or veggie option) topped with a mountain of fries and covered in Welsh rarebit sauce.
It was as decadent, delectable and nap-inducing as it sounds.
That was my first time in Illinois’ capital city, about three-and-a-half hours south of our Chicago home, past tallgrass prairies, towering grain silos and sprawling cornfields.
It was also the first time I met, over those horseshoes, the beautiful soul who is now my mother-in-law. I’ve been back dozens of times, accompanying my husband to his hometown.
Those frequent visits mean ample opportunities to sink our teeth into the horseshoe or, if we’re in the mood, a snack at Cozy Dog Drive-In, which was once a Route 66 mainstay; to check out the famous butter cow at the Illinois State Fair; to pay a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House and to tour the former haunts of Abraham Lincoln, who lived in Springfield for 24 years before becoming president and about whom the town is understandably obsessed.
A visit to Springfield is a chance to immerse yourself in history and politics, explore Americana and try a few of the local specialities, which just might make you feel like you’re at a year-round fair.
1. Dana-Thomas House
The word “prairie” is used liberally around Springfield. It is the capital of the Prairie State, after all. The term takes its most artful form at the Dana-Thomas House, a stunning example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style architecture.
Wright designed the home in 1902 for Susan Lawrence Dana, a fascinating woman who was a philanthropist and feminist known for being eccentric.
Today, the 1115m2, with its 35 rooms (and duck-pin bowling in the basement), is owned by the state of Illinois and is known for being the most intact of all Wright homes, with its expansive collection of art glass and furniture designed by Wright. Tours offered daily shed light on Wright as well as the home’s former residents, including Dana and, later, Charles Thomas, who used the house as the office for his publishing company.
2. Route 66 Drive-In
Vintage Americana runs deep in Springfield thanks to its location on the Mother Road and that retro pride burns especially brightly in one spot. Route 66 Drive-In is home to two screens that show double features from April to October, with a mix of new and classic movies.
Bonus: Next door is Knights Action Park, an amusement park, water park, golf range and go-kart track owned by the same family as the drive-in. Make it a heartland-of-America doubleheader and visit both, if you can.
3. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Lincoln made Springfield his home in 1837, when he was an attorney serving in the Illinois general assembly until 1861, when he moved to Washington as president.
Lincoln lore is displayed especially well at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Even non-Lincoln-buffs rave about the hologram show, aka the “Ghosts of the Library” production that give form to Abe to help a historian tell his tale. All around the museum exhibits bring the past to life. illinois.gov/alplm
4. Lincoln Tomb
Lincoln’s body rests in Oak Ridge Cemetery, about 3km from where he lived in Springfield. The tomb’s towering granite obelisk grabs your attention from the entry of the cemetery, although more memorable is the bronze statue of Lincoln’s head in front of the tomb: his nose is so light in colour it looks as if he’s wearing sunscreen. It’s become a tradition to rub the nose, presumably for luck.
Visitors can step inside the sombre burial chamber and pay homage to Lincoln, three of his sons and his wife, Mary. (Robert, their oldest son, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.)
Abe trivia: for protection from would-be robbers, Lincoln’s remains are kept in a concrete vault below the burial chamber. Thieves tried to remove the body in 1876. lincolntomb.org
5. Long Nine Junction
Since opening in 2017 in a former Quiznos, Long Nine Junction has developed a cult following among locals. So much so that in January, the small, chef-driven lunch spot was at No 20 on Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the US 2019”.
The downtown restaurant, owned by a husband and wife, is a natural addition to any Lincoln-themed outing: the name, Long Nine, was the nickname for Abe and eight other notably tall Illinois legislators who argued, successfully, to have the state’s capital moved from the town of Vandalia to Springfield.
The menu has a clever format - appetisers are “Opening Statements”, while sides are “Amendments” - for its globally inspired options, such as Tom Kha soup, the Cubano panini, and the comfort-food-innovation of all time - a grilled cheese on garlic bread. restaurantportals.com/LongNineJunction
- The Washington Post