My wife and I home-educated our four kids for the past 23 years. The last one has graduated from high school and has flown the coop, so now we are “retired” (although without a teacher’s pension). Our lives are filled with wonderful memories of not only teaching our kids the history of our great country from books, but also from taking them to the actual places where many of the events took place (or seeing artifacts from the events in museums).
What a thrill it was to stand at Concord bridge where the minutemen stood against the British regulars, and later to go into Paul Revere’s house! My kids were awestruck when they saw for the first time the Wright Brothers’ first airplane, or the real “Star Spangled Banner” from Ft. McHenry in the Smithsonian. And we stood in stunned silence at the incredible majesty of Mt. Rushmore and the hills of South Dakota. Our kids loved it all; history came to life and they learned to appreciate our nation’s history at a deeper level by visiting these and plenty of other sites (almost all during our vacation time).
I’m only writing about a few cities where we had a lot of fun walking around and learning about our country. In succeeding articles I’ll tell you about the great parks and museums that our kids loved. I hope you find these cities and sites as exciting as we did!
1. Charleston and Savannah. Everyone knows about Atlanta and Nashville. But have you thought about a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia?
The two cities are only about an hour’s drive away from each other, and there are beaches nearby for everyone to play in (Hilton Head and Tybee Island). Charleston is the older city (founded in 1670). Go look at the beautiful, colorful houses on “Rainbow Row,” and then take a boat ride to Fort Sumter where the Civil War began. Outside of Charleston is Boone Hall Plantation, where several movies (most notably Gone With the Wind, North and South, and Glory) were filmed. You will be impressed with the amazing beauty of the mansion’s interior and exterior, but you will also see the stark contrast with the slave cabins that are still there.
Middleton Place, also outside of Charleston, was the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence: Arthur Middleton. The home and gardens are remarkable.
And then there’s Patriots Point: Want to see a REAL World War II aircraft carrier, destroyer, and submarine, along with REAL fighter aircraft from that era all the way to the 1970s? Man, your kids are gonna LOVE climbing all over the USS Yorktown. They will learn all about naval warfare and how our country defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific.
Don’t miss Savannah! Founded in 1733 as a haven for people in debtor’s prisons, Savannah was the first planned city in North America. Walk along the cobblestone River Street and Factors Walk (plenty of good restaurants and shops), then enjoy strolling through the squares. Make sure you visit the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. The Owens-Thomas House is also a little-known treasure.
Then go visit Fort Pulaski or Old Fort Jackson (where re-enactors fire off Civil War cannons!) on your way to play at the beach on Tybee Island.
2. Washington, D.C. Of course, you have to go to Washington, D.C. I would start there and work your way north if time allows. What’s in D.C.? Start with the Smithsonian. My gosh, I could LIVE there if I could get away with it. In the Air and Space Museum is the Wright Brothers’ original airplane, and Chuck Yeager’s “Glamorous Glennis” in which he broke the sound barrier for the first time. And the Apollo space capsules (command modules)! And REAL airplanes from World War I and World War II! The “Enola Gay” (the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) is there.
It would take me days to walk through that museum alone. Then, across the mall is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Want to see the “Star Spangled Banner” that flew over Fort McHenry? George Washington’s uniform? All the ball gowns of all the first ladies starting with Martha Washington? All there in that museum. They also have the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture … these are awesome, too!
Then there’s the National Archives, where we see the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Sadly, both the Declaration and the Constitution have faded quite a bit over the years, but I can still make out John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration. Make sure you get there early — the line gets mighty long.
There’s Ford’s Theatre (where Lincoln was shot), and the house across the street where he died. The Washington Monument, Vietnam Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Lincoln Memorial are all still very impressive. Other new memorials are to Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and the veterans of the Korean War (which is startling and eerie to me). The World War II memorial is really a favorite of mine, especially when I see the vets from that era and their families visit.
You can call your congressman and ask for a personal tour of the U.S. Capitol. Make sure you call about four or five months ahead of time. We’ve taken our kids to personally meet our representative in his congressional office, and he gave us a tour of the place before passing us off to an aide to get a more thorough tour of the Capitol. Surprisingly, we bumped into more than a few members of Congress (I behaved myself in front of the kids, and did not show my anger or disgust with anyone.)
Don’t forget to go across the Potomac to see Arlington National Cemetery and nearby, the Marine Corps War Memorial (the statue of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima). Personally, I would consider it criminal not to visit these two sacred places if I were visiting D.C. Robert E. Lee’s home at the top of the hill at Arlington Cemetery is another national treasure you and your kids need to visit. Then stand quietly at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with your children — that will spark a lot of discussion by the kids, I am sure.
3. Philadelphia. The reason you go there is to see the birthplace of the United States: Independence Hall. There, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. And then, eleven years later, the U.S. Constitution was written and signed. All the furniture in the room is original. You are not allowed to go past a barrier and touch it. But when you are in that room, and look at the chair that George Washington sat in as he presided over the Constitutional Convention, it will hopefully fill you and your kids with profound respect and awe.
Across the street from Independence Hall is the Liberty Bell. It is in a nice, new, colorful and interesting facility. You and your kids can walk right up to the Liberty Bell! (I touched it, but don’t tell anyone.)
If your kids like ships, there in Philly is the USS Olympia — the only ship of its kind in the whole world! It was Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War (1898). It still has plenty of cannons on board, and you and the kids can go exploring all over the cabins for the enlisted men and officers. (Dewey’s cabin is pretty impressive.) Then, right across the river in New Jersey is the World War II battleship USS New Jersey! You can see her from the deck of the Olympia, but go on over to New Jersey and pay her a visit. You’ll see the amazing contrast between a ship built in the 1890s and a ship built just 50 years later.
In Philadelphia is a jewel that is hidden to most visitors. You need to take your kids to Mother Bethel African Methodist Church. That building sits on a parcel of land that is the oldest piece of land continuously owned by blacks in North America. Richard Allen was once a slave. But once his master was converted to Christianity, he was freed. As a freeman, he became a preacher and eventually started the African Methodist denomination.
His first church was in a blacksmith shop on that site where the current church building is located. Bishop Allen personally knew some of our founding fathers (such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin). In the basement is a wonderful museum that houses Bishop Allen’s personal artifacts dating back to the late 1700s. His story is one of the most remarkable stories of courage, faith, and perseverance in American history, and every adult and kid in this country should learn it.
Call before you go to the church and museum so they will know to expect you and your family.
Before you leave Philly, make sure you stop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Get your picture next to the statue of “Rocky,” and then run up the steps trying to sing the theme song to the movie. Film your family doing it. You’ll laugh all the way. Oh, and get a Philly cheese steak before you leave. The kids’ll love you forever for that.
4. Boston. We stayed at a little cabin in Vermont, then woke up early in the morning to drive to the closest train station outside of Boston. Then we hopped on the train that took us straight to the heart of the historic district. The people of Boston just couldn’t have been friendlier (even though I was wearing a Cleveland Indians jacket).
We walked and walked all over the “Freedom Trail.” It is literally a red line painted on the road! Just follow it, and it will take you to 16 historic sites that you read about in the history books. Bunker Hill, Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church, the site of the Boston Tea Party — it’s all there. And of course, you can also get on the oldest still-commissioned warship in the United States Navy — the USS Constitution. “Old Ironsides.” Real sailors dressed up in early 19th century garb teach you and the kids about life on the high seas 200 years ago. What a thrill it was! (Did you know that the USS Constitution is the only U.S. warship that is still commissioned and has actually sunk a ship in battle?)
Our family also made a very special pilgrimage to Boston Common. Right there in downtown Boston, tucked away, is the memorial statue to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. They were immortalized in the magnificent movie Glory (1989) starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick. This is the bas-relief statue you see at the end of the film. All of my kids saw the movie. All of them were happy they finally made it to Boston to see the statue of the men they admire so much.
Not far outside of Boston is the trail from Lexington to Concord. We stood at the Old North Bridge at Concord. There is the famous statue of the Minuteman. I kept trying to imagine what it was like to stand at that bridge facing down hundreds of British soldiers. What guts our Founding Fathers had. Our kids never forgot that moment of standing where the Americans said that they had enough.
When everyone is starving, go to the oldest restaurant in the United States: the Union Oyster House. It is huge inside, very noisy (so the kids can blow off steam), and the food is excellent. We all had their New England clam chowder and corn bread. Yummy!
This is just a smattering of places where you can take your kids to have a ball and learn, too. I know I left out Plymouth and Yorktown, and cool stuff to see in Atlanta or Chicago or New York City or places out west. Hang in there, I’ll talk about that when I get to parks and other museums. But for now, think about going somewhere like these places I’ve mentioned, and start planning now!