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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Heritage and Horseshoes in Springfield, Illinois

Get your kicks on Route 66 in the Illinois state capital.

Springfield, Illinois  |  230 Miles

Springfield, Illinois, is a capital city with an identity all its own.

With a little more than 113,000 residents — around Evansville’s size — Springfield is comfortably distant from Chicago, yet close enough to easily drive there. It is in west-central Illinois on the fabled U.S. Route 66, which traversed America’s heartland from the Windy City to Southern California.

A prairie town surrounded by farms, Springfield is more than a political mecca — it boasts a colorful history and culinary delights. Evansville Living enjoyed some of that culture during a cold January visit courtesy of Visit Springfield.

A major draw is the Dana-Thomas House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and a testament to human creativity.

Dana-Thomas House photo provided by source

The home dates to 1902 and shows Wright’s brilliance in incorporating lines and stained glass into a design. It was built for Susan Lawrence Dana, a socialite and philanthropist. Charles Thomas and his wife  Nanette bought it in 1944; it has been state-owned since 1981.

With more than 100 original pieces of furniture and about 450 Wright-designed art glass windows, doors, and light fixtures, the home — like Springfield itself — has a unique personality.

Tour guide Sheila Ryan, site interpreter for State Historic Sites of Springfield, says Wright’s goal appears to have been “bringing nature inside, blurring the boundaries between indoors and outdoors.” The priceless home is a “thing of beauty,” Ryan says, and it is made more so by artificial floral accents by the Springfield Civic Garden Club.

The Dana-Thomas House is a showstopper, but the unquestioned star of Springfield is the 16th U.S. president.

Lincoln Library photo by John Martin

Born in Kentucky and raised in Spencer County in Southwestern Indiana, Abraham Lincoln made Springfield his home as a young adult. The triumphs and tragedies of his life are chronicled at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Dedicated in 2005, the museum uses immersive displays to tell the story of the late president and the Civil War. Most striking was the 17-minute immersive film “Lincoln’s Eyes,” showing in Union Theater. Displays are eye-catching and bring exhaustive detail and context.

More history is a block away at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the first and only home Lincoln owned, and much of its 1839 original structure remains.

A dignified statue of Lincoln welcomes guests to the ornate Illinois State Capitol, where tours are available during business hours and on weekends. It is the tallest domed capitol building in the U.S., with 405 feet from the ground level to the top of the flagpole.

The nearby Old State Capitol is a reconstruction of the building used from 1840 to 1876. Lincoln made his “House Divided” speech there in 1858, and it is where then-Sen. Barack Obama declared his campaign for president in 2007. It is closed for renovations and is to reopen later this year.

Downtown Springfield is full of fun small businesses. We made smart vinyl purchases at Dumb Records, then warmed up on a cold day with a hot chocolate chai tea latte at The Wakery, a no-alcohol bar. Founded and owned by Elizabeth Wake, The Wakery has coffees, teas, and non-alcoholic beers and wines.

Springfield eateries we loved included La Piazza Cucina Italiana, which offers high-quality Italian in a casual atmosphere, and Neapolitan-style pizza. Pease’s at BUNN Gourmet is a mashup of candy and gifts, coffee, and terrific sandwiches (try the Smoked Brisket Sandwich!), plus beer and wine choices.

Craft beers and savory foods await at 10-year-old farm-to-table restaurant Engrained Brewing Company.

Owner Brent Schwoerer “was raised on a farm, and that’s where he got the farm-to-table concept,” says Amanda Sanders, a waitress and bartender at Engrained. The cheese curds are a big seller, as are comfort bowls. We enjoyed a honey soy stir-fry and chased it with a flight of house brews.

Engrained draws several diners from the next-door SpringHill Suites Springfield South, a Marriott property offering modern overnight accommodations, an indoor pool, and a fitness center.

Springfield even has a signature open-face sandwich — the horseshoe. The breakfast version at Charlie Parker’s Diner (established in 1992) was profiled by Food Network’s Guy Fieri. Start with slices of Texas toast and top it with meat (could be a hamburger patty, a chicken breast, eggs and bacon, or sausage). Then smother it in cheese sauce and/or gravy and put a heap of fried potatoes on top.

We enjoyed the dinner version at Motorheads Bar & Grill. Owner Ron Metzger bought the vacant property eight years ago and refurbished it as a magnetic Springfield attraction with Route 66 nostalgia.

It was a Stuckey’s roadside restaurant when built in 1970 — Metzger keeps a Stuckey’s sign on Motorheads’ colorful façade, and the well-known Stuckey’s candies are sold here.

Springfield is three hours and 40 minutes from Evansville, and if you drive up from the south, Motorheads is the first local landmark you will see. Journalists have “come from everywhere — Germany, France, Japan, China, you name it,” Metzger says.

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