When it comes to learning about Springfield's rich and diverse history, Justin Blandford, superintendent of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and his incredible team want to offer an experience that will exceed your expectations. That's why they recently developed Walk, Hike and Bike History, a series of six outdoor experiences that focus on encouraging people to explore some of Springfield's most amazing museums and historical monuments.
When my family recently learned about the tours, we couldn't wait to give them a try. However, I was apprehensive that the tours might prove too difficult for my younger children, so I contacted Blandford, voiced my concerns, and asked him which ones he thought would best suit our family. He assured me that no matter which tour we chose, our guide would be sure to cater to what worked best for us.
"These are not cookie-cutter experiences that we pass out for everybody," says Blandford. "We have spent a lot of time listening to our guests and our staff, and the tours have been built from the ground up by our team members to suit your individual needs. The members of our team aren't only guides, they are storytellers and professionals who relish the opportunity to talk with your family about something that they are passionate about. Our goal is to give you the very best possible experience, and I think that shines through."
Inspired by Blandford's enthusiasm, my family ventured out one overcast Saturday morning to meet up with Mikito Muroya at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Muroya was happy to see us, despite having some concerns that our tour might be cut short by rain. Armed with a red and white striped umbrella, he guided us toward what has historically been known as The Colored Section of the cemetery, pausing every so often to regale us with stories of Black Civil War soldiers, prominent Black business owners in Springfield and information about the 1908 Race Riots.
Standing in the slightly overgrown grass, my children reverently touched the faded names engraved on the tombstones and began to make the unmistakable connection between history and present day. Much to my surprise, my 10-year-old daughter and her best friend asked exceptionally insightful and heartbreaking questions that left me hopeful that this next generation of children will teach us more about kindness, empathy and unity than we can imagine.
After saying goodbye to Muroya, we drove to the Dana-Thomas House and met up with Jennifer Caldwell, a charming and whip-smart woman who, armed with clipboards and graph paper, led us on a Design Like Frank Lloyd Wright Drawing Tour.
For the next 90 minutes, we walked the grounds of the Dana-Thomas House and sketched windows, plants and rooftops, while Caldwell taught my family about Frank Lloyd Wright's famous architectural style. Expertly, she explained to us how Wright used simple shapes and nature as inspiration in his work, showed us different styles of architecture around the neighborhood and explained what makes each of them beautiful and unique.
When our tour was over, Caldwell surprised us by inviting us inside the Dana-Thomas House. Leading us from room to room, she entertained my children with fascinating stories about Susan Dana's legendary parties, and I'm certain that we'll never drive by that glorious house without remembering how special Caldwell made all of us feel that day.
According to Blandford, it is well known in the museum field that the local audience is the hardest one to reach. He gives credit to his team for how diligently they have worked toward finding new ways to reach the Springfield-area audience, but he wants it to be known that these experiences are not limited to the locals. Aside from the six guided tours, there is also a virtual tour of the Dana-Thomas House that offers a chance to reach out to people who are much more geographically distant.
"We had a family on the virtual tour, and half of them were in New York and the other half were in Florida," says Blandford. "Like so many people, they have been separated during the pandemic, yet here they were spending time 'together.' I remember sitting back and thinking, 'Wow! How cool is that?'"
No matter where you are, Blandford and his team want you to know that the experiences they offer are authentic. They also want to entice you to come back and share your experiences with your friends. "Most importantly," says Blandford, "we want people to understand the historic treasures we have in our own backyard. We want you to know that it's an honor for us to help preserve them, and it's an honor to share this history with you."
You can find more information about the Walk, Bike, Hike and History tours by visiting the IDNR website at http://historicspringfield.dnr.illinois.gov/ or by calling 217-524-3971 or emailing [email protected].
Lana Shovlin is a freelance writer who resides in Springfield. She is looking forward to devoting part of her summer to walking, biking and hiking around Springfield with her husband and three adventurous children.