A Place to Remember

IMG_9486 2When my daughter asked me if I could take the kids somewhere “educational” this week, I thought of a few places, but centered in on the Illinois Holocaust Museum, I had been there once before, but I knew the kids hadn’t been.

The museum is located in Skokie, a Chicago suburb, where at one time, the population was half Jewish. (That figure is from the 90s, not sure what it is today.) Precisely because of that demographic, the development of the museum had a lot of support from townspeople who had been through the holocaust or had family who had been through it.

The new museum (it use to be located in a storefront) opened in 2009.

You can take pictures in many areas inside, but I didn’t. So much to read and look at and we shared the space with a limitless amount of middle and high school kids on field trips. (Might not have been the best time of year to go.)

Although all the museum is interesting, the highlight of the trip was the Take a Stand exhibit – considered to be one of the top twelve museum exhibits in the world.

To design the exhibit, the museum took several Holocaust survivors out to L.A., where they sat in a green room and were asked questions for five or six hours a day over a period of a several days. Their answers were videoed. The producers then edited the video down to 28 answers to the most common questions and the entire project was made into a hologram.

So, as you sit in the auditorium, a man or women sits up front and tells his or her story. IMG_9491Then the audience can ask questions. Because of the hologram effect, it seems as if you are talking to a real person, but in actuality it’s a picture. In fact, the man we listened to died two weeks ago. As time goes on and the number of survivors decreases, I’m sure exhibits like this will become even more valuable.

I would highly recommend a visit.

Here are some tips.

*Knowing about the Holocaust before you visit is a good thing. That helped me grasp the meaning of some of the exhibits. Although, even if you know nothing, the museum clearly gives a timeline of the events. Both munchkins had studied the Holocaust and had a good understanding of what they were seeing.

*Give yourself a lot of time. We missed quite a bit of it because of time constraint.                           The Take a Stand exhibit is an hour itself. In other words, don’t expect to run in and out in a half hour.

*Consider the ages of your kids. I asked the munchkins how old they thought someone should be before visiting and they agreed with me – middle school and up. If you do take a  younger child, a lot will need to be explained. Pictures are also disturbing (for older teens and adults, too, but we are more understanding of the reality of what happened). And I did not see one child among the hundreds of people who were visiting on the day we were there.

IMG_9485*Beware that this time of year is when field trips happen. The place was packed with teens to the extent that we were often stuck behind them and had to wait to get to the next room.

*Know you will need to go through security to get in.

Would I recommend it? Yes! And I would recommend you bring your teens there, too. As we get further and further away from World War II, less people will be around to tell their stories and memories blur.

Yet, we must NOT forget.


Leaning Tower of Niles

IMG_9495.jpgEven though I grew up in the area, I had not heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, located in Niles, Illinois, until last week when I was looking for something to do near the museum we visited. Not sure how I  missed it growing up, or maybe I did see it as a kid, I just don’t remember it.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Niles is half the size of the real one in Italy. Robert Ilg built the structure back in 1934 as part of a park for his hot air electric ventilating company.

Since then the tower has gone through several renovations and a couple years ago, the city of Niles bought it from the YMCA for $10.00 and renovated it once again.

Not much to do, but walk around – still if you’re going that way, it’s worth a stop.

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Inside the Hemingway House

A lady sat at a desk in the home’s entrance. She greeted us happily and I told her I needed an adult ticket and a student ticket.

She gave me a knowing smile and explained, “WE call them youth.”

Well, okay. The list of fees I had seen talked about students and ID cards, but I wasn’t going to argue.

She went on to say that we’d have to wait 20 minutes for the next tour and we could go get a cup of coffee if we wanted. Not sure where we would’ve been able to do that in 20 minutes (which neither of us wanted), so we turned around to wait in the small entrance amidst a display of Hemingway’s books and a display of magnets that we could buy to help the upkeep of the home. The magnets said, “Write Drunk.” I didn’t feel the need to buy one.

Then another lady appeared and said that we could just go on the present group , they were only one room into the tour. (This began another interesting conversation which I won’t bother repeating.)

We decided to do that.

Hemingway’s childhood story is convoluted and interesting. His father was a doctor and his mother was a musician, often involved in her music to the extent that housekeepers and cooks took care of the house.. His parents were both well educated. His dad took him camping, his mother took him to the opera. Hemingway often said he hated his mother.

He didn’t like his name because it made him think of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest.

They were upper middle class and spent their summers in a Michigan cabin. The home we visited was Hemingway’s birthplace – later they moved to a much bigger house on Kenilworth (another Oak Park Avenue). That home is owned by private residents who hope to restore it for future visitors. Hemingway lived in Oak Park until he went to war. (Seeing where E.H. lived negates his stories about growing up in poverty which he often told the women in his life.)

Hemingway’s own description of Oak Park was: a place of wide lawns and narrow minds.

Hemingway was a direct descendent of John Hancock. Another relative – either his grandmother or great-grandmother (couldn’t find anything to back this up) was the first female student at Wheaton and graduated with honors.

Anyone who knows even a little bit about the Hemingways, knows that there were a lot of suicides in the family including Ernest himself and two of his five siblings. The family was a strange mixture of achievement and depression.

Here are some pictures of the inside of his house.


This is the kitchen – the family lived in the house for nine years and his mother never, ever cooked a meal.


Upstairs  hallway.


One of the first – if not THE first – bathrooms in town. I just liked the look of the tile and paneled walls.


Ernest as a one-year-old.DSC_0283DSC_0286

His dad was a scientist and a photographer and took Ernest hunting and fishing and taught him to be a naturalist.


I took this picture because I have a chair like this that belonged to my grandmother. The tour guide explained that it was a sewing chair and that’s why the arms were low. I never knew that. Hmmm …

Would I recommend you visit the house? That’s a good question. If you’re interested in literature and the personalities of well-known authors – I would say yes. But it’s not a place to take small children. Or, if you do take kids, there needs to be good conversations about what you heard.


The Shirley Plantation

From Berkeley, we went down the road to the Shirley Plantation (another in the group of homes called the James River Plantations). The land was first settled back in 1613 and was used for growing tobacco.Then in 1638, some of the land was given to Edward Hill. Over time, Edward acquired more land and then eventually passed it to Edward Hill II During the Bacon Rebellion in 1676,  he sided with Governor Berkley so the rebels invaded his home. In 1700, Edward III took over and he had another son, (you guessed it) Edward IV. Unfortunately he died, so Shirley Plantation was given to his daughter Elizabeth who married James Carter. (Isn’t this all fascinating?)

James and Elizabeth built the current home and called it the “Great House.”  Interestingly, eleven generations of the family have lived in the home and it is now the oldest active plantation in Virginia. Shirley Plantation is also one of the oldest family-owned businesses in North America. In fact, you can only tour the bottom floor because the top floor is still lived in by the Hill Carter family.

One of their claims to fame is that one of the daughters – Ann Hill Carter married Light Horse Harry Lee in the parlor of the mansion. The couple were the parents of General Robert E. Lee.

Remember what I said about tour guides? The girl at Shirley Plantation was our very favorite. Easy to listen to and informative. Among other facts, we learned that young brides would scratch their initials in the window glass with their engagement rings.

Not a Presidential home – but enjoyable with beautiful grounds.

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Belle Grove Plantation – Historic and Elegant

DSC02706This story starts more than a year ago (and the blog post should’ve been written four months ago) – in the fall of 2012. A friend and I had driven out to Virginia for an AMC (Awana Ministry Conference) and had stopped at several historical places on the way … such as Monticello and Appomattox. When I got home, I blogged about our trip (as usual). I noticed that one lady in particular often liked my historical Virginia posts.

And so I went on her blog to see what she was all about. That’s when I first came in contact with Michelle Darnell and learned how she and her husband were renovating Belle Grove Plantation – the birthplace of James Madison. The plantation (in Port Conway, Virginia) was at one timed owned by the Conways – the family of James Madison’s mother, Nelly. (Nelly and James Madison Sr. didn’t live at Belle Grove, but she came back to her mother’s house to have her baby.) Although the current home was not built at the time of Madison’s birth, it is believed that the small house he was born in was on the same spot as the current home and it is officially recognized as James Madison’s birthplace. (The original house burned down and the current house was built in 1791.)

Then I learned that Belle Grove has another claim to fame – John Wilkes Booth and his companion, David Herold, escaped down to the Port Conway area and crossed the Rappahannoch River nearby. The detectives followed Booth’s trail to the river and some of them stopped (for a couple hours or so) at Belle Grove for food. One detective who had some serious wounds, spent the night in the front hallway.

This was all fascinating – and I would regularly check her blog to see how the renovations were coming along. With my “hobby” of visiting presidential sites – actually staying at the only one you can possibly stay at – would be very cool.

However – I figured it would be a long time before I got back to Virginia.

But then I got invited to another conference in Virginia in the fall of 2013 and this conference was very close to Belle Grove.

I emailed Michelle. The Belle Grove Bed and Breakfast would be open by then. I made reservations.

My friend Sue was with me and we arrived at Belle Grove on a cloudy afternoon. We drove down a long driveway to the circular drive. Michelle was out front, sweeping the steps and immediately came over to welcome us. The B&B had only been open for a few weeks … and we were the only guests there that night. (I don’t think that will happen too often.) She gave us a tour of the house (it’s huge) and then showed us to our rooms.

My room had a bedroom, a hallway with a couch (straight from the set of the Lincoln movie) and a black and white bathroom with a claw-foot tub.

DSC_0086Sue and I were hungry so we got back in the car and headed across the river to a place Michelle recommended – but first we also did the John Wilkes Booth “tour” – seeing a house in town where he had stopped and also the marker on the highway at the place where he was caught (which is now in the median strip).

We went back to the house and sat out on the second floor balcony for awhile, watching the lightning flash above the river … but then the rain started blowing on us, so we went in.

We went to our separate rooms. I sat on the bed, the sconces on the wall giving a warm glow to the room as I listened to the rain splattering on the windows. I could imagine it being 1800 and sitting there and writing a letter to a friend or family member on another plantation. Or maybe it’s 1865 and I’m writing in my journal about the events of the day …

The next morning we woke to a delicious breakfast of baked plums and lemon blueberry pancakes. As we ate, we chatted with Michelle …

We took a final walk around the grounds and checked out the summer kitchen – still very much like it was back in the day.  The Darnells hope to make a museum about life at Belle Grove.

So, if you happen to be in Port Conway (Port Royal) Virginia – I highly recommend you stop by. Even if you don’t stay overnight, you can take a tour of this beautiful home.

With much sadness we had to leave … but what a once-in-a-lifetime experience … and to think I discovered Belle Grove because of my blog.


1. After the agreement was signed, soldiers from both sides gathered at the McLean home to renew friendships and reunite with families.

2. The terms of peace were kind. The message was that the nation could now rebuild as one – not one of revenge.

3. Thomas Tibbs owned a farm near Appomatox Court House. He fought his last battle on his own property.

4. Lee and Grant met one more time after leaving Appomattox. When Grant was president, he invited Lee to visit the White House and Lee came.

5. The oldest building at Appomattox is the Clover Hill Tavern (1819). You can go inside – which we did.

6. Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, wrote out Grant’s formal agreement. Lee said to him “I am glad to see one real American here.” Ely replied, “We are all Americans.”

7. Custer (yes, THAT Custer) received the flag of truce at Appomattox.

8. Custer died fairly young (as we all know) and his wife Libby then possessed the table from the McLean house where the agreement was written. She wrote in her will, …the table on which the surrender of General Lee to General Grant was written…and now located in the… War Department Building in Washington, D. C., I give and bequeath to the United States Government…”  The table is now in the Smithsonian. ( I remember reading Libby Custer’s biography when we lived in Michigan. Interesting lady.)

9. Appomattox Court House was originally named Clover Hill after the tavern. This was a stop on the road between Lynchburg and Richmond.

10. Not all the regiments got the message that the war was over and many still fought for several weeks. In actuality, the Confederates won the last battle of the war.

11. Lula McLean (7 year old daughter of Wilmer) had been playing with her doll in the parlor before the excitement. When the agreement was signed, one of the soldiers picked up the doll and started tossing it around to the other soldiers. The men called it the silent witness. One of the men (Captain Moore) took the doll home with him as a souvenir and the family actually kept it for more than a century, recognizing it’s importance. (Most everything in the parlor was taken as souvenirs.)  Lula never saw her doll again, but the doll was donated back to the park in 1992.

12. One of the members of Grant’s staff present for the signing was Lincoln’s son, Robert.

(Much of this information is from the Appomattox Court House National Historic Site web pages as well as a few other places.)

Village of Appomattox Court House today – the courthouse/visitor’s center to the right, Plunkett/Meeks store to the left. Clover Hill Tavern in the back right and the gift shop straight ahead. (I imagine the gift shop did a big business on the day of the  signing :).)