A Little Time and a Keyboard: A Spring Day at Cantigny Park and the First Division Museum

A Spring Day at Cantigny Park and the First Division Museum

Friday, May 22, 2015

Despite thunderstorms in the forecast, last Sunday turned out to be a spectacular day! The perfect day for an excursion--so we headed of to Cantigny Park in Wheaton. I have heard plenty of wonderful things about Cantigny Park in the past but I did not fully understand how grand the park is until I visited. I certainly left wondering how it was possible that we had not made the trip before!

Cantigny Park is sizable containing sprawling gardens, two museums, an educational center, a visitor's center, walking paths and a golf course. How could we have missed this for so long?

The 500-acre park was a gift to the public from Colonel Robert R. McCormick. Colonel McCormick served in the Army's First Division during WWI. He participated in the capture of Cantigny in France. He named his farm estate in Wheaton after Cantigny. His maternal grandfather was Joseph Medill, an editor and co-owner of the Chicago Tribune and former mayor of Chicago. Robert later became a publisher and editor of the Tribune, which he would do for 44 years. Upon his death, he established the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust that transformed his estate to a public park as well as created funds for programs fostering a community of informed and engaged citizens. An impressive gift from an impressive man!

As you can imagine, the estate is rather large and takes some time to explore. Our main goal on our trip was to visit the First Division Museum. My father served in Vietman as part of the First Division, so visiting the Museum and the new Vietnam War Exhibit was a great way for my daughter to connect with this piece of her family's past. What I was not expecting, however, was to encounter this amazing outdoor gallery of tanks.

I mean, there were tanks everywhere and kids were climbing all over them! What fun! Plus, it was quite surreal to see tanks in a remarkably picturesque setting knowing the horrors they probably witnessed. The collection includes tanks from the early prototypes and WWI through WWII, Vietnam and  beyond. Such an experience!

After exploring the tank park, we entered the museum where dog tags were being made on a real dog tag machine from the WWII era! Pretty cool! Next, we visited the Vietnam War exhibit. I really don't know how to explain seeing VC artifacts felt to me. I guess I had a bit of mixed feelings--obviously interested in this link to family history but also a heavy feeling about war. I particularly found the section on propaganda from both sides interesting. So if you get a chance, take a peek!

The pictures and uniforms are something that every child of a Vietnam Vet is very familiar with. I was able to identify items for my daughter and explain things that helped her make a family connection.

The other wing of the museum tells the history of the First Division from its inception using real artifacts, accounts and re-created scenes. I felt everything was fine for children (sometimes you have to be careful in war museums). Most of the detail centered on WWI and WWII. WWI in particular makes sense since Colonel McCormick served in WWI. I would love to see an expansion on other conflicts--which I am sure will come! The D-Day exhibit is of particular note because film, lighting and sound is used to simulate being in one of the landing boats. Not too intense for children but does give you a bit of an idea.

As you can already sense, there is A LOT to do at Cantigny Park! After the museum, we wandered through the gardens including a discovery garden. We did not have time to visit the McCormick Mansion during our visit but an outside peek shows its magnificence! We will be back!

Other Things To Know:

  • Cantigny Park also has numerous events during the year including reenactments, art fairs, garden events, concerts and more! 
  • Plus, you can't beat the price--free with $5 parking per car! (Some special events may have additional fees.)
  • The Dog Tag Machine runs on the weekends. There is a $6 fee for one dog tag, $10 for two. The First Division Museum does request that you call to make sure the machine is operational before coming if that is the reason you are coming.
  • There is a 27-hole golf course.
  • The gardens are magnificent and plentiful. You can even download a guide!
  • You can borrow a Family Discovery Backpack for free to help with exploration!
  • Be sure to check seasonal hours before visiting. The First Division Museum and McCormick Museum are closed Mondays and in January, hours vary on season so double check.

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