Got a free Saturday? Head east.
Pack up the young 'uns and follow Interstate 70 East to Greenville and Vandalia, where "free" also means visiting unique museums and historic sites without dropping a penny.
Yes, you'll still have to pay for lunch -- and ice cream.
On this day trip, kids can expend some of that excess energy pent up from the car ride (even if it is only an hour or so) and climb into a fort or onto a tractor. Giggle over a camera that shoots water instead of photos. Pose with young Abe Lincoln, visit the oldest surviving state capitol building in Illinois and see how a national road tied a nation together.
Round-trip from Belleville is about 170 miles, and if you leave the house by 8 a.m., even with stops for gas, lunch and a sweet snack, you can easily be home before dinner.
To better plan your trip, please note the limited days and hours of operation for some of these sites.
Snapshot: You'll make at least two stops in this community founded in 1815. Greenville is the county seat of Bond County, 46 miles east of St. Louis off Interstate 70. The population was 6,955 in 2011.
Tourism information: 888-862-8201, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday
Mileage: Belleville to Greenville, 60 miles via Interstate 70 East
American Farm Heritage Museum, 1395 Museum Ave., Greenville
Directions: Interstate 70 East to Exit 45 toward Greenville/Carlyle. Turn left (south) at end of ramp and make an almost immediate left onto Museum Avenue (frontage road).
Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, May to October.
Cost: Free. (Fees for special events.)
Added attraction: The first Saturday of each month, visitors can ride the X-scale train around the property for $2 (free for under 2 years old). Also, tour the re-creation of the 1812 Hills Fort, which includes a cabin and a work-in-progress stockade. Take a gander at military vehicles parked outside the new site of the Armed Forces Museum, formerly located in Alton.
Information: americanfarmheritagemuseum.org or 488-7758.
In 2002, a group of farm families around Greenville got together to organize and preserve artifacts, memorabilia and a field full of farm vehicles so others would know what farm life was like. The first building went up in 2003 and one has been added each year since. Today, 256 families and individuals are responsible for the creation and upkeep of the American Farm Heritage Museum. (You can become a supporting member for $15 a year.)
Built on more than 60 donated acres, it includes several large sheds and out-buildings filled with vehicles; the Lil Red Barn Museum, which has displays of a general store, soda shop, feed store, kitchen and other memorabilia; a sawmill; and outdoor space with bleachers for special events like tractor pulls.
Galen Peters, 69, is one of many volunteers who mans the museum property on Saturdays.
"Boy, they love to climb this combine," said Galen. He was talking about youngsters who can't wait to sit behind the wheel of a variety of donated or loaned vehicles, from a 1952 Massey-Harris red tractor to a Hi-Crop harvester used in sugarcane fields.
"When I conduct tours, I don't have to say much," said Galen, though he can identify every single vehicle in sight. "I just stand and listen."
Also on the land is the re-creation of a fort originally built about 3 miles away in 1812 by Isaac Hill to protect settlers from Indian attacks. Rebuilding started in 2006. Hills Fort volunteers like Jim DeGroff, of Troy, and Eric Reelitz, of Greenville, just might be working when you get there. On a recent day, they planned to finish a wall of the stockade that will surround the fort, but Jim took time to give an impromptu tour.
"All the wood for the cabin and the (blockhouse) is recycled from Fort Massac that was torn down in Metropolis and brought here," he said. While they'd like to use wood more true to the period, Jim said donated telephone and utility poles make the best vertical supports for the stockade.
"We just can't ever get enough poles, though," he lamented.
Visitors can climb to the second floor of the blockhouse and look out the gunsights. Boy Scouts often have overnights there. Stop in the cabin, too. Want more information? Call 618-248-5885 or go to fortsofillinois.org.
DeMoulin Museum, 110 W. Main St., Greenville
Directions: Interstate 70 East to Exit 45 toward Greenville/Carlyle. Go right on Illinois 127 North and follow about 2.5 miles. Turn right on South Third Street, then right on West Main Street. The museum is on the right, one block off the square.
Hours: 1-3 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays. Or by appointment, 618-664-4115.
Cost: Free, though donations are appreciated.
Peculiar is a good word to describe the DeMoulin Museum in downtown Greenville. So is fun. You'll find bucking mechanical goats, a camera that squirts water, chairs that collapse, a trick guillotine and a variety of other pranks and gag apparatus that in the late 19th and early 20th century were meant to surprise, scare and jolt victims being initiated into secret societies and fraternal lodges.
While today DeMoulin (Duh-MULL-en) Bros. & Co. is the nation's leading maker of band uniforms, this small museum boasts the weird and wonderful paraphernalia and regalia that started the business in 1892. If a lodge needed to spice up its initiation ceremony with something a little scary or funny, DeMoulin had catalogs filled with patented devices, as well as robes, costumes, props, badges, banners and headgear, many of which are on display.
John Goldsmith, executive director of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, is the creator and curator of the museum he opened in 2010.
"A lot of the people who come here are members of fraternal organizations and lodges, some of them are older and retired, and they find all of this pretty interesting because they've heard of some of these things," he said.
At the heart of the collection are the odd props and tricks gathered by John's late mother Norma, who worked for DeMoulin for 50 years.
"This was a way for lodges to boost membership," he said, adding that as the years passed, items such as church furniture and blankets for circus elephants were added to the inventory. The company made its first uniforms in 1897 for the Greenville Concert Band and over the decades made that its primary function.
John is glad to show how early DeMoulin devices worked on unsuspecting visitors -- and let then try on robes and uniforms. If you're lightweight enough, you can see how long you last riding one of the company's signature goats, meant to give a rough ride to blindfolded lodge victims.
"We have fun here!" said John.
In 1995, the DeMoulin family sold its interest in the business, but the name was retained. Today, there are plants in Greenville (band uniforms) and Centralia (head gear and other non-school uniforms).
If you watched the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl in February, you saw DeMoulin uniforms on the drumline performing with Madonna and on singer Ceelo Green, said Don Adamski, executive vice president and general manager.
Closer to home, all you have to do is watch a variety of high school marching bands to see DeMoulin uniforms, from Belleville East and West to O'Fallon, Freeburg, Collinsville, Waterloo and Mater Dei.
While you're in Greenville ...
Richard S. Bock Museum, 315 E. College Ave. -- Just two blocks from downtown, the museum is located in the historic Almira College House. You'll find more than 300 plaster and bronze sculptures done by Bock, an artist working in the early 20th century, plus some work by Frank Lloyd Wright. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Large groups call ahead to 618-664-7001.
Marcoot Jersey Dairy and Creamery, 526 Dudleyville Road -- South of Greenville, this working dairy farm has a store that sells cheese and ice cream, plus an observation area inside to watch cheese being made. Organized tours should be made in advance by calling 618-664-1110. Information at marcootjerseycreamery.com. Open noon to 4 p.m. Sundays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays.
Snapshot: Founded in 1819, Vandalia sits on the Kaskaskia River and is the county seat of Fayette County. Like Greenville, it is just off Interstate 70. The population was 6,975 at the 2000 census. You'll find downtown easy to walk, so park the car near the statehouse and you'll be able to reach everything mentioned here on foot.
Mileage: Greenville to Vandalia, 22 miles via Interstate 70 East.
Tourism information Center: Off Interstate 70 at Exit 63.Turn right onto U.S. 51 South. Look for it on the right. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Phone: 618-283-2728. Online: vandaliaillinois.com.
National Road Interpretive Center, 106 S. Fifth St., Vandalia
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.
Directions: U.S. 51 South (also known as Kennedy Boulevard) to West Gallatin Street. Turn right (west) and follow two blocks to Fifth Street and turn right. It will be on the right behind City Hall.
Cost: Free, but donations are welcome.
Information: 283-9380 or nationalroadvandalia.org
Make a stop at the National Road Interpretive Center if you want to understand the mammoth undertaking of building a road in the early 1800s that was supposed to stretch from Maryland to the banks of the Mississippi River. It didn't quite make it, stalled in 1838 in Vandalia when the federal government halted funds for the project and decided states should instead pay for the road's construction.
The super highway of its era at 591 miles long and 80 feet wide, The National Road was built to set imaginations afire and lure settlers west to expand the nation. Thomas Jefferson and Congress also saw it as a strategic way to more efficiently move commerce and the military. In 1811, surveyors and laborers began their work in Cumberland, Md., eventually cutting and chopping through forest paths, forging rivers, traversing hills and valleys and using the ghost of Indian trails as the road made headway west.
Inside the center, kids can load a Conestoga wagon, the symbol adopted by the National Road, for their imaginary trip. There's also a short but interesting film on the road. Make sure to ask the volunteers there about "corduroy" roads and why horses wore bells.
Vandalia Statehouse State Historic Site, 315 W. Gallatin St.
Summer hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Cost: Free. Donations welcome.
Tours: Typically every 15 minutes. Groups of 10 or more must have a reservation.
Information: 618-282-1161 or illinoishistory.gov
From 1819 to 1839, Vandalia reigned as the bustling capital of Illinois. The city sat safely removed from the troubled Indian Territories to the north and the Kaskaskia River flowed close by. Both were good reasons to choose the city as the second location for the state's capital, after the town of Kaskaskia, the first capital in 1817, was deemed too far west and plagued by flooding from the Mississippi River.
The first General Assembly gathered in 1820 in a small wood building downtown, which burned down three years later. They then moved to a nearby building constructed in 1823.
Ken Brewer, who works at the statehouse, said the town tried to do an end-run around rumors that the capitol would be moved again by building a grand Federal-style statehouse in less than four months -- hoping the commitment would sway the General Assembly to keep the capitol in Vandalia.
"They built it on faith," Ken said, adding that the construction was done without permission from the state. "They took bricks out of the old bank building to help build this one."
But to no avail. In 1836, a vote was taken by the assembled lawmakers, who included Abraham Lincoln, to move the state capitol to Springfield.
"Lincoln had spent time working here and he was despised in Vandalia after that because of his vote."
But the wheels of government turned slowly regarding the move northwest. The third statehouse was in use for three years until 1839, when the government finally settled into its new capitol building in Springfield.
Today, visitors can tour the large rooms of the oldest statehouse in Illinois, including the Senate and House of Representative Chambers, to see where lawmakers and others toiled over state government.
Make sure to ask your guide about the Supreme Court justice who pulled a gun on a governor. In the Secretary of State's office, take note of the office's job description, which included providing firewood for the building.
Madonna of the Trail -- At the southwest corner of the capitol grounds, the statue is one of a dozen placed along the Old National Road to honor the pioneer mothers of the covered wagon days. It was erected in 1928 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. (Look for photos of the street celebration at the National Road Interpretive Center.)
Lincoln Park -- Directly across from the main entrance to the statehouse on Gallatin is this small city park with a fountain and gazebo. A bronze statue of a young seated Abraham Lincoln is placed strategically so anyone taking a photo will get a nice image of the statehouse in the background.
If you have extra time ...
Little Brick House -- 621 St. Clair Ave. Operated by the Vandalia Historical Society, this simple Italianate home was likely built in the mid-1800s. The home is renovated and decorated in period pieces. Tours are free, but donations are welcome. To see the home, an appointment must be made at least 24 hours in advance by calling 283-1534.
The Old State Cemetery -- At the south end of Third Street, the cemetery was created in 1823 by the city and the Third General Assembly as the resting place for members of the legislature. In the fall, the city hosts "Theatrical Epitaphs," a cemetery walk that features local residents portraying some of the early residents of Vandalia buried there.
Fayette County Museum -- Directly in back of the statehouse (301 W. Main St.) in a former Presbyterian church built in 1867. Free. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. (Closed on Sundays from January through March.) It has a large collection of Civil War artifacts, one of the paper presses from the capitol building, a variety of antique household goods and clothing. Ask to climb to the second floor to see the stained glass windows.
Time for food
Old Capitol View Restaurant, 401 W. Gallatin St. -- Yes, it does have a view of the Capitol building -- if you're sitting in the right spot. But you should really focus on the homemade food. The eatery has spectacular burgers (they're big, too), delicious fries, tender chicken strips, fried green tomatoes and reasonable prices. It's a casual place where children are welcome.
Lamp of Liberty Coffee & Ice Cream Shoppe, 515 W. Gallatin St. -- No matter who wants what in the family, this eatery has it all. You can get ice cream, candy, specialty coffee drinks and bottled soda, cheese, sandwiches and snacks. It's all located in a quaint downtown storefront with bare brick walls and plenty of room to sit a spell.
Copper Dock Winery, 498 White Oak Lane, Pocahontas -- If you're minus the kids, this is a good spot to sit a spell on the way home. Enjoy the wooded lake view from the deck, sip a glass of wine and peruse a menu with soup, salad, sandwiches and pizza. Take I-70 exit 36 and turn north at the end of the ramp onto Pokey Road. You won't go far before you see the giant grapes in front of the winery turnoff on the right. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Live music on weekends. Phone: 618-669-2675 or copperdockwinery.com.