We have been slowly expanding our Covid circumscribed world since the March lockdown. Our daughter Lara suggested we do a road trip in Illinois. She and her husband Eddie did a weekend getaway close to where they live on the East Coast and it lifted their spirits considerably. To aid us, she put together a whole two and a half-day itinerary to Springfield, Illinois. We could go right after Labor Day when we would normally be leaving for one faraway place or another before the pandemic shut us off from most of the world.
It had been almost thirty years since Noel and I had taken Lara and her older brother Moran to Springfield to immerse our family in all things Lincoln. Our current objective, however, was to get away from home for a few days, eat in some good restaurants, stay in a nice hotel and see some interesting sights. Springfield seemed to fit the bill.
We started off on Route 66 in Berwyn, a town south of Oak Park where we live, and merged onto I-55. You can take Route 66 all the way to Springfield, but it’s not easy because the route is no longer on road maps. I-55 has basically replaced Route 66 in Illinois. However, we did pull off the interstate to visit Atlanta, Illinois, a small town about 50 miles northeast of Springfield, just to get a flavor of Route 66.
I have to confess that the atmosphere of desolation and sadness in the community was disconcerting. Route 66 has few if any travelers these days and Atlanta, Illinois, seems to be a town dependent on Route 66 tourists.
Per Lara’s instructions we drove to the center of town to see the Paul Bunyon with a hot dog statue. The statue stands about 19’ tall and holds an outsized hot dog (Chicago style, no catsup). He was originally in front of a hot dog stand called Bunyon’s in Cicero, Illinois, for 40 years. When the restaurant was closed, the statue was installed in Atlanta to be a symbol of Route 66. Point of clarification, the owner of Bunyon’s hot dog stand misspelled the name of the folk hero Paul Bunyan, exchanging the “a” for an “o.” The misspelling has stuck.
The Atlanta statue is part of an advertising “genre,” if you will, of marketing tools known as “Muffler Men.” In the 1960’s International Fiberglass of Venice, California, built thousands of giant fiberglass figures with lots of variations depending on what they were promoting. Some hold mufflers, some tires, some even morph into the Uniroyal girl. Apparently, there are around 300 still in existence and Atlanta, Illinois, has its Paul Bunyon Muffler Man with a Chicago dog.
Right next to the statue is a charming Route 66 gift shop, Arch Street Artisans, selling lots of Route 66 souvenirs as well as a nice selection of crafts made by local artisans. But the town center is a pretty dead place right now with closed restaurants and shops and very little traffic and people. As we were heading back to I-55, we passed a house with a huge Trump/Pence sign. And so it goes.
As we exited I-55 into Springfield, I noticed a young man trying to hold himself upright next to an on-ramp sign. He was clearly in some kind of drug-induced crisis. I kept on driving, but the thought kept running through my mind about whom I would call if I dared to help him. Not the police because they are not really trained to deal with someone like him who wasn’t committing any crime but was in great distress.
The call to “defund the police” has a hollow ring to it for me because it’s not specific. We need peace keepers, but we often call on the police to take care of situations that they are not trained to handle properly. This does not excuse the racist police profiling and mistreatment of people of color. However, we don’t really have comprehensive systems in place to aid folks in distress whether it’s a drug crisis, a housing crisis or whatever.
In the late afternoon we checked into the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, part of Hilton’s DoubleTree chain. The restaurant and bar are closed because of Covid, but there are a number of fine eating establishments within walking distance that are open. The hotel was mostly empty but it offered what we were looking for at bargain basement prices. We were able to book a huge suite with two full baths, the kind you rent for small receptions and meetings, at a very reasonable rate. Every crisis has its upside.
Per Lara’s suggestion, Noel had made dinner reservations at Vele, a fantastic Italian seafood restaurant. It has both outdoor and indoor seating. We chose indoor where the tables are spaced far apart and the staff wears masks and maintains social distancing. Considering it was a Wednesday night and the state legislature was not in session, the restaurant had a pretty good crowd.
For a starter, we had some of the best octopus we’ve ever had including some memorable octopus sashimi on Sado Island in Japan where it was caught, bought and prepared within a few hours of our devouring it. For my entrée I ordered yummy scallops in a sweet corn purée. Noel had an outstanding spicy seafood spaghetti dish. The spaghetti was hand-rolled with squid ink. We shared a delicious flan for dessert. The only disappointments were the house special cocktails. Too watered down with fruit juice and ice. I’ll stick to my lemon drop martinis and cosmopolitans.
In October Vele is moving to an upscale Springfield neighborhood called West Koke Mill. That’s a loss for downtown Springfield.
The next morning, we followed Lara’s instructions and had a late breakfast at Café Moxo, a cafeteria that offers both breakfast and lunch from 6:30 am until 4 pm. Like Vele it has both inside and outside seating. Both restaurants offer carryout but Moxo also delivers.
After breakfast we stopped in at the visitors’ center which was staffed by two very helpful people, Sheila Hunter and Zhavier Harris. They made reservations for us to visit the Vachel Lindsay house that afternoon. Probably most of my readers don’t know who Vachel Lindsay was unless you had a high school English teacher like I did who loved reciting Lindsay’s poetry out loud. My teacher was especially fond of “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” a poem in praise of the Salvation Army. Composer Charles Ives set the poem to music.
Lindsay saw himself as an advocate of Blacks and mentored poet Langston Hughes. However, his poem “The Congo” has been criticized for its racial stereotyping. Ironically, he wrote it as an attack on white colonialism, in particular the brutal regime in Africa’s Congo of King Leopold II of Belgium. W.E.B. DuBois both praised and criticized Lindsay’s work. Lindsay sometimes performed parts of “The Congo” in blackface. It was another time.
Lindsay was born and grew up in Springfield in a well-to-do family that lived across the street from the governor’s mansion. As a young man, he led a peripatetic life, actually walking hundreds of miles throughout the country and trying to sell his poetry in order to cover his expenses. In the latter part of his life he moved himself and his family back into the family home in Springfield. It was there, overcome by illness and financial worries, that he killed himself in 1931 by swallowing a bottle of lye. A miserable way to die.
On our way to the Lindsay house, we walked around the Lincoln neighborhood, a four-block pedestrian zone, which we had visited decades before with our children. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t enter any of the properties like Lincoln’s home, but the National Park Service has done a great job with its signage, even on the empty lots, of telling the story of this neighborhood in the middle of 19th century America with a civil war looming. It was an integrated neighborhood of activists that included the Jameson Jenkins family of Black freemen. Jameson Jenkins was a wagon driver and is believed to have been a conductor in the Underground Railroad. He drove Lincoln to the train depot when he left Springfield for Washington, D.C. to become president.
Another activist who lived in the neighborhood as a child was Julius Rosenwald. He eventually acquired half of Sears and Roebuck and made it a retail powerhouse. He supported thousands of schools in the South for emancipated slaves. In 1909 he helped form the NAACP with W.E.B. DuBois, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Stephen Wise and Henry Malkewitz, the little-known Jewish roots of the NAACP. He also gave millions to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
Arriving on the steps of the Lindsay house a bit early, we rang the doorbell but nobody seemed to be there. We waited roughly a half hour periodically ringing the bell, but we finally realized no one was coming. This is one of the travels perils in the time of Covid. With all the layoffs and folks working from home, organizations are short-staffed and often communication isn’t as good as it should be.
It turned out the docent had had an accident the day before and had to be hospitalized. The Vachel Lindsay Association apparently has a very small staff and had no one to replace the unfortunate docent. Our friends at the visitors’ center were very apologetic, but there was nothing to be done. We will be coming back before this pandemic is over. Hopefully, the association will find another docent by then.
That evening we had dinner at Maldaner’s, an old-line restaurant dating back to 1884. It offers both traditional and contemporary American fine dining. Like Vele and Moxo, it also has outdoor as well as indoor dining. Again, we opted for indoor dining, sharing an excellent beef Wellington with a fantastic cucumber shrimp soup as a starter. We especially liked their cocktails, each brought to the table in its own shaker. The server left the shakers on the table, so we could consume the precious remains of our drinks. I always feel a little cheated when a bartender pours my drink from the shaker into a glass and then takes the shaker back. But not at Maldaner’s.
The next day was Friday, our day to head home. It’s not a long drive, so again following Lara’s suggestion we decided to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House on our way out of town. Living in Oak Park, we’ve been exposed to lots of Wright houses. I’m not a Wright fan. Often the ceilings and doorways are too low. I dislike the built-in furniture and I’m an art collector. I would never want to live in a house where I couldn’t hang art on the walls. Having written that, I fell in love with Falling Water in Pennsylvania. I consider it one of the most remarkable pieces of sculpture I’ve ever experienced.
The Dana-Thomas House is actually a remodel of an Italianate mansion into a prairie style mansion blended with a Japanese aesthetic. Built between 1902 and 1904, the house embodies Wright’s concept of “expanding space” beginning with the arched entrance doorway that leads you into a series of expanding spaces that take you from the entryway into the reception area. The large west wing continues the expanding space concept leading you through an interior Torii gate into the two largest rooms in the house, an upper-level gallery used for concerts and a ground-level library with special display easels to show off the owner’s collection of Japanese prints.
Probably the most memorable sights in the house are the roughly 450 stained glass windows, doors, skylights and light fixtures designed by Wright. Wright hated drapes, so he designed the colors of the tinted glass in the windows so you could look out into the surrounding gardens but no one could see in from the outside.
We toured the house with some folks visiting from California. Because of the pandemic, no more than five people are allowed to tour at one time and you must make a reservation. The guide takes your temperature at the door and you must wear a facemask and gloves. Once again, the helpful folks at the Springfield visitors center made our reservation. Like most of the tourist attractions in town, there is no cost but donations are encouraged.
Thank you, sweet daughter, for a great journey.