Metro-East Living

The other Springfield: Vibrant downtown, castle and caverns

Downtown Springfield, Mo., is seeing a resurgence with new stores, businesses and a boutique hotel.
Downtown Springfield, Mo., is seeing a resurgence with new stores, businesses and a boutique hotel. sboyle@bnd.com

One of the first things you should know about traveling to the other Springfield — the one in Missouri — is that while it’s a longer trip, it’s more interesting and entertaining.

Point the car west on Interstate 44 this time of year and watch the hills and valleys unroll like ribbons of gold, amber and bronze. Forget the cruise control as you climb, descend and bend your way to Missouri’s third-largest city. It’s about a four-hour trip from Belleville. But that’s only if you don’t stop. It’s difficult not to stop.

I-44 is part of the historic Mother Road, Route 66. Forget the mind-numbing miles of farm fields you pass in Illinois heading toward our state capitol. Here, you can still see family eateries, motor courts and tourist gift shops along the way. Think concrete yard decorations, walnut bowls, fudge, cheaper gas and a great little Route 66-themed restaurant.

There’s plenty to do in the Springfield area, from driving through famous caverns and visiting a haunted castle to walking one of the world’s longest footbridges and visiting a Civil War battlefield. Oh, and getting outdoors fever at Bass Pro Shops.

You’ll easily fill a weekend and need to come back to do more. National-chain motels offer clean, comfortable rooms for the night, but if you want something unique, try a bed and breakfast in an 1890s mansion or a new boutique hotel downtown.

Springfield residents say the next two weeks should be spectacular for viewing fall colors, so pack the car now.

On your way ...

Stop at: Route 66 Diner, 126 St, Robert Blvd,, St. Robert/Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Miles: 150 via Interstate 44 West from Belleville

Info: Open 24 hours. route66dinermo.com. Next to the Exxon Mobil Station just off the interstate, you’ll know you’re there when you see the gleaming silver exterior of this little 1950s-style eatery. Get your fill of menu items that include huge burgers, butterscotch milkshakes and homemade biscuits and gravy, plus jukebox music, tons of memorabilia and, if you’re lucky, foreign tourists who go ga-ga over the place.

Note: You might be asked to snap somebody’s picture next to the photos of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Springfield — Downtown

Miles: 235 miles via Interstate 44 from Belleville

Population: 164,122 (2013)

Tourism info: www.springfieldmo.org/things-to-do

235 Miles from Belleville to downtown Springfield, Mo.

164,122 Population of Springfield, Mo.

Brief history: A railroad boomtown in the late 1800s, the city is home to Missouri State University and downtown is a Federal Register Historic District. The six-block area is steadily working its way back to being a vibrant place to eat, shop and live. Check these out:

1. Jefferson Avenue Footbridge — 201 E. Commercial St. Free parking on the street and in an adjacent lot. The 562-foot pedestrian bridge, one of the country’s longest, was built in 1902 to let townspeople cross safely over 13 sets of railroad tracks in a still-bustling yard. Train spotters bring your cameras. Kids will love watching as double-decker trains pass underneath, missing the footbridge by just a few feet. Make sure to wave to the engineers.

2. Commercial Street — You’ll find lots to do on this rebounding street filling with artisan businesses. Try Peruvian food in a two-story Victorian building at Cafe Cusco (234 E. Commercial St.). Askinosie Chocolate (514 East) is a chocolate factory that imports and roasts its own beans. The 53-year-old, vintage-vibe Pizza House (312 East) knows how to do thin crust. White River Brewing Co. (505 West) anchors Commerical Street on the west end. It offers tours, has tasting rooms and live music.

3. Park Central Square — In the heart of downtown Springfield. You’ll find a modern sculpture, a cascading fountain, newly opened nearby Vandivort Hotel, theaters and a variety of pubs and businesses. Stand in front of the library (southwest corner) and you’ll find a plaque where the nation’s first quick-draw shootout in a public place occured in 1865 between Wild Bill Hickok and cowboy Davis Tutt.

In and around Springfield

Pythian Castle — 1451 E. Pythian St.; 417-865-1464; www.pythiancastle.com

At night, it looks like a really spooky old castle. Come to find out, it was built in 1913 as an orphanage by the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order. Later, the federal government used it as a military hospital during World War II and housed German prisoners of war there, too.

Tour guide Tim Piland says it’s a “certified haunted castle,” with more than 100 reported deaths and some recorded phenomena. History tours, ghost tours, murder mystery dinners and other holiday events occur regularly there, as well as weddings.

The ghost tours are about 90 minutes and are held during the day and at night. The night ones fill pretty quickly this time of year. You get to passs through an old steam tunnel and see other supposedly haunted spots in the manison. It leans a little toward the hokey, but Tim tells good ghost stories.

If you’re interested, there will be an overnight Ghost Investigation by the St. Louis Paranormal Task Force on Nov. 14. Cost is $75.

Fantastic Caverns — 4872 N. Farm Rd. 125; 417- 833-2010; www.fantasticcaverns.com

There should be a car game for how many billboards you spot on I-44 for Fantastic Caverns, “America’s Only Ride-Through Cave.” I’m guessing at least two dozen.

The attraction offers the chance for anyone who can’t easily walk, has small children or just wants to kick back and let someone else do the driving through this truly huge wonderland created by an ancient underground river. It’s about an hour tour with a variety of stops as you sit in a little red caravan of cars attached to a Jeep driven by a guide.

It’s full of stalagtites, stalagmites, soda straws, curtains and other natural configurations hanging from the ceilings or jutting up from the ground. Tour guides are well-versed in explaining it all to you as well as the history of the family-owned caverns. It’s a classy operation with an attractive visitors center, gift shop and even a woodsy hiking trail to a natural spring.

Best part of its history to see: Carved into the wall of the cave are the names of the 12 women who were the first to answer the call in 1867 to explore its interior. Think long gowns and candle lanterns.

Notes: Pay close attention getting there so you can find your way back: It’s a lovely set of winding country roads once you’re off the main highway.

It’s a bit pricey at $23.50 for an adult and $15.50 for kids 6-12. Group rates are lower. Also, check the seasonal hours.

One more thing: If you enjoy caves, check out the Smallin Civil War Cave, 3575 N. Smallin Road in Ozark, Mo. (417-551-4545; www.smallincave.com)

A much smaller but historically more important cave, it is on the Finley River just 6 miles south of Springfield. Not only does it have ties to the Civil War, but Native Americans are thought to have sought shelter there as they were forced West from their homes in the South during the Trail of Tears. It offers one-hour guided, half-mile tours and other types of tours as well. Check the website.

Sequiota Park 3500 S. Long Pine Ave.; 416-864-1049 and Facebook — A great spot to see fall colors, Sequiota (suh-COY-tuhs), a Native American word that means “many springs,” is one of Springfield’s most popular city parks, with trails, a fishing lake, playground and three caves, two of which you can explore.

One of the newest amenities across from the park is The Bike Shop (417-881-4488; facebook.com/sequiota-bike-shop), which is really an outdoor cafe that also rents bikes. You’ll find cocktails, beer, handcrafted sandwiches, salads, cheese and meat boards, as well as a designated dog/owner area away from the patio. This is a very cool place to park yourself after a hike or ride through the park. Consider just one sandwich as an example of the kind of food you’ll find there: The Schwinn features roast beef, roasted shallots, fresh greens, a touch of cream cheese and a layer of candied jalapeno spread on a baguette.

Note: There is no indoor seating, but The Bike Shop plans to stay open as long as weather permits, adding heaters if necessary and always taking to-go orders. The place is easy to spot. You will see it on Long Pine Avenue before you see the entrance to the park. Bike rentals are $25 for the first hour and $12.50 for the next on a tandem. A single cruiser is $15/$7.50. Bring your own helmet or rent one for $3.

All the bikes have baskets and you can get a 20 percent discount on food if you rent a bike and take your meal with you on the bike over to the park.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield — 6424 W Farm Rd 182, Republic, Mo.; 417-732-2662; http://www.nps.gov/WICR

Wilson’s Creek was the second major battle of the Civil War. Located a half-dozen miles southwest of Springfield in Republic, it is part of the U.S. National Park Service.

Go to the visitors center and get a brochure and a token for entrance to the 5-mile battlefield. Costs is $7 per adult or $15 per vehicle to take the tour. A new reciprocal agreement between Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwest Arkansas allows visitors to visit both sites with a valid receipt from either park within seven days. Winter hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. effective October 25.

Note: The paved-road tour leaves much to the imagination. You will find eight interpretive stops, five walking trails and a 7-mile trail system for horseback riding and hiking. Watch for joggers and bikes on the road, too.

One building worth a short walk from your car is the modest frame home of John Ray, who lived there with his wife and nine children during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Built about 1852, the Ray House is the only original surviving dwelling from the time of the battle. When fighting broke out, Ray remained on his front porch to watch. He and his family, several slaves and a neighbor eventually hid in the cellar when fighting got closer. They would come out hours later to find the house and the grounds littered with wounded and dying Southerners.

Note: If you don’t want to take the tour, spend some time in the free museum inside the visitors center. It is well thought out and gives a compelling historical and political background to the battle. There also is an award-winning 30-minute film.

The Mansion at Elfindale Bed & Breakfast — 1701 S Fort Ave.; 417-831-5400; mansionatelfindale.com

You have to decide when you travel if staying at a bed and breakfast suits your personality. If you can handle quirky, unexpected, historic and charming, and overlook a few imperfections, this is the place for you. Elfindale, built in 1892, originally was a private residence with 35 rooms. It now has 13 big guest suites on the second and third floor, with dining and reception rooms on the first floor.

Some quirks: armoires instead of closets and tiny bathrooms filled with small sinks, clawfoot tubs (with shower heads) but good hot-water pressure.

Free wi-fi and satellite TV are givens, as are wood floors, queen and king beds, some four-poster, and Victorian decor. Prices are $100 to $129 with breakfast on weekends. Owned by Cornerstone Church in Springfield, the home is fantastic to explore and the staff, including Manager Myra Stiles, are very helpful.

Note: Check your directions carefully if you’re staying here. It’s secluded but unexpectedly off a busy road and right around the corner from the Bass Pro Shops. We missed the big arched wrought-iron gate to the property because it was tucked into some trees.

Other unique places to lay your head: Walnut Street Inn, a Victorian mansion, and the Vandivort Hotel, created from a former downtown Springfield Masonic temple.

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