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American History Echoes Across the Heartland

Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site

Petersburg, Illinois

Groups step into history at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, northwest of Springfield, Illinois. The village lasted from 1821 to 1841, but its story continues to fascinate visitors. Now reconstructed, the village is where Lincoln spent his early adulthood and launched his political career.

Although Lincoln never owned a home in New Salem, he boarded with village families from 1831 to 1837. He worked as a store clerk, split rails and served as postmaster and deputy surveyor, among other jobs. After an unsuccessful run in 1832, he served two consecutive terms in the Illinois General Assembly from 1834 to 1836.

The visitors center museum recounts the rebuilding of the village and Lincoln’s New Salem life. A 17-minute video rounds out the story. Self-guided tours include the village’s 12 log houses, Rutledge Tavern, 10 workshops, stores, mills and a school that also held church services. Each building has been reconstructed and furnished to the 1830s. Many period pieces that grace the interiors were used by former New Salem residents.

“Groups discover that New Salem was probably the most formative period in Lincoln’s life because he lived here from age 22 to 28,” said volunteer interpreter Ron Howell. “When Lincoln left, he was an attorney and licensed to practice. This is where he first dabbled in politics and government.”

Groups get a better feel for the era during a variety of special events. September brings a music festival, and October features the Candlelight Walk, with gingerbread and cider served in the Rutledge Tavern. The season ends with a Fall Festival that demonstrates skills and items that were needed to survive the winter on the 1830s Illinois prairie.


Grand Portage National Monument

Grand Portage, Minnesota

Dramatic bay views and intriguing history combine to make Grand Portage National Monument a must-see for groups in Minnesota. The site was the epicenter of the fur trade from 1784 to 1802 when the North West Company’s headquarters were located at Grand Portage. The name refers to the eight-and-a-half-mile footpath that served as the voyagers’ highway during the fur trade. It allowed them to bypass the Pigeon River’s 22 miles of rapids. The footpath also preserves a portion of the largest terrestrial ecosystem in the world: the boreal forest.

“Most people want to walk the path. It’s rocky and full of roots, but it connects Lake Superior to a point along the Pigeon River,” said Pam Neil, chief of interpretation at Grand Portage National Monument. “Some walk 150 yards, and others spend 45 days paddling the interior and finish their trip on the Grand Portage.”

Groups start their tours at the Heritage Center. A recently produced 23-minute film, shot on location, gives a good overview. The exhibit area displays trade silver and artifacts up to modern times, and an interactive exhibit invites visitors to try their hand at trading.

Outside, several North West Company buildings have been reconstructed on their original foundations, among them a historic depot, a great hall and a canoe warehouse filled with a birch-bark canoe collection. Beyond the stockade, a Voyageur encampment and Ojibwe village are worth exploring.

“Many of our visitors are quite taken with the cultural partnerships forged during the fur trade, which made it successful,” said Neil. “The Native Americans were integral to the success of the trade and quite powerful during the time period of the North West Company.”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.