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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How Lego bricks are made (for the train fans)

My Lego-obsessed son loves this video about the making of Lego bricks. Not only does it show how the Lego factory cranks out the toys, the set it highlights is a Lego train. Win-win! Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Itasca: America's Best Train shop

This Christmas elf had some shopping to do at America's Best Train, Toy & Hobby Shop in Itasca today. It's half model-railroad hobby shop, half uber-toy store. Absolutely wonderful. While I was pondering my purchases, my daughter was delighting in the playroom, which is filled -- truly filled -- with play tables: Thomas, Chugginton, Calico Corners, and several high-end European toys all there for fun. Worth a stop!

Monday, November 19, 2012

At least I get top billing

My oldest left this note for me on our kitchen memo board the other day. It pretty much sums up why I started this blog. I love my kids, they (usually) love me, and we all love trains. Aww.

We're entering a great season to be a train-loving kid. Between the numerous Polar Express-themed programs, model trains circling Christmas trees in countless holiday displays and enough time off from school and work to hit the restaurants and hobby shops on our to-see list, delightful days are ahead.

By the way, rumor has it that a storefront in downtown Geneva boasts a  new train restaurant opening soon. We will be joining the eager masses who are bound to flock there as soon as it opens in the new year. If you just can't wait for an excuse to tour Geneva, which couldn't be more adorable than it is during the Christmas season, pop into the Geneva Diner on 2nd Street and tell the kids it started as a diner in a real rail car. See if they can picture what it would have been like when it opened many decades ago. Then wander back a few blocks south and watch the real trains zip through town.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Road Trip: National Railroad Museum, Green Bay, WI

The Union Pacific Big Boy and Pennsylvania electric locomtive

Big Boy
The goal of our recent family get-away (because we're predictable like this) was to head up to Green Bay, Wisconsin to see the National Railroad Museum. Sure, the Illinois Railway Museum in Union is bigger and certainly closer, but Green Bay has a shining star: the Union Pacific Big Boy. This steam engine was one of just 25 built in the early 1940s to tackle the mountains of the Wasatch Range in Utah. Only eight still exist in transportation museums around the country. It's notable because it's enormous, the largest steam engine ever built. Truly, words cannot express how massive this machine is. Any self-respecting train lover needs to take a look at this thing. Neither #4017 nor it's surviving peers run any more, so it's worry-free exploration for the kids. This Big Boy is living out its retirement in a comfy indoor shed and guests are welcome to climb into the cab and ponder the skill of the engineers who knew how to work the countless levers, gauges and dials. Those were men of serious skill.

They know their audience:
climb-on train structures at the playground
Anytime we visit a train museum, my kids are completely overwhelmed by how much there is to see and do. The National Railroad Museum is no exception. We arrived a bit before the museum opened for the day, but that was okay because a play area right next to the parking lot features wooden train climbing structures, as well as a large swing set and sand box. The play area alone could have entertained the kids for a good long time and might make for a good picnic spot on a warmer day. (Green Bay in October is chilly, after all.) Inside there are several interesting permanent and temporary exhibits on railroad history which I would have loved to digest, but small kids have no patience for things like railroad china, especially with giant engines down the hall. In addition to the indoor center, the train pavilion outside displays the streamlined Aerotrain, several additional steam engines, passenger cars from all eras and maintenance equipment. The kids love walking through the passenger cars, especially looking at the tiny sleeper car bedrooms and climbing around the observation car's tables and kitchens.  Behind the museum is an observation tower that gives a great view of the grounds and surrounding area. Several times each day, a train ride departs from the "Hood Junction Depot" for two loops around grounds. Honestly, it was the slowest train ride we've ever experienced, but it's not a long stretch of track, so at least we spent a respectable amount of time riding. Following that, a movie on the history of the Big Boy is shown in the museum's theater. I had to duck out with a squirmy toddler but my 6-year old assures me it was great. (That's a good review from someone who is actually more interested in diesel engines than steam, if truth be told.) To cap things off, there's a fully-stocked gift shop with a huge number of items for kids and adults.

We combined this visit with stops at other sights along the way and in Green Bay, which made for a very pleasant trip. The National Railroad Museum is definitely worth a stop either as a destination for train lovers or as a side trip during Wisconsin travels. Like so many train sites, there are special events planned for autumn and Christmas holidays for extra fun.

Aerotrain and other engines in the train pavilion

View from the observation tower -- 99 steps up!

In an old mail car, the town labels looked very familiar:
Geneva, St. Charles, West Chicago, Skokie, DeKalb, etc. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Road Trip: Jelly Belly Center,Pleasant Prairie, WI

Thanks to a long weekend off from school, my family was recently able to get away for a few days and visit some places that have been on our to-see list. Our first stop was Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin where the folks at Jelly Belly have turned their candy-distribution warehouse into a very sweet train ride. The tour around their facility takes visitors on a half-an-hour train ride with stops along the way to see videos about the history of the company and the making of their jelly beans, as well as displays of candy-making equipment. Sure, it's basically advertising, but it's a  free train ride that ends with free samples! What's not to love? The "retail center" even features a sample bar where guests can taste (one bean at a time) the many, many unique flavors. My kids wisely chose various chocolate flavors, but my husband and I tried the flavors we would probably never buy: dirt, grass. Of course, if you wanted to buy crazy flavors, standard flavors, tiny packages or giant gift boxes, those options are all available to you.

The Jelly Belly Center is a short jaunt off Interstate 94, just past the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
Getting off the Jelly Belly Express

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pumpkin trains

The apple-picking season is coming to a rapid end, thanks to our odd spring weather, but the pumpkin farms are now open in force.  Just like the orchards, the pumpkin patches are full of kids' activities, including trains! Yesterday I noted that I'd seen adds for trains at Bengtson's in Homer Glen and Siegel's in Crest Hill. My local paper today has an add for Pumpkin Train Rides in Waterman, Il. According to the add, there is a walk through the Haunted Train Station, a ride past Halloween-themed spooks, including a long tunnel, and a stop at a pumpkin patch for a free pumpkin. This train runs weekends in October, but if we miss out a visit during the fall season, it looks like the Waterman & Western Railroad is worth a visit throughout the year for other events or just a weekend jaunt on a small-scale model RR. 
From the family archives:
A visit to the pumpkin patch at
the Fox River Trolley Museum
I've mentioned it before, but pumpkin train rides are coming up at the Fox River Trolley Museum, too. It's a nice low-key outing for fall, especially with the beautiful scenery of the Fox River to enjoy. 

So, I keep looking at the holiday activity listings of all types. Finding a train ride with a seasonal twist isn't difficult at all. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Orchard trains

When the fall season begins, a new crop (heh!) of kids activities appears all over the area. Orchards and pumpkin farms take full advantage of the family-friendly nature of a trip to the local farm for some seasonal fun. It's not just autumn's bounty on sale; it's a mini theme park at almost every site. The specific activity varies by farm, of course, but a wagon ride of some sort is almost always available at the larger places. Sometimes, that ride takes on a train theme.

One of our favorite apple-picking places is Jonamac Orchard in Malta. It's plenty busy, but far enough from suburban crowds to be more pleasant, in my humble opinion. We love Jonamac because the folks who run it clearly care about their crop and their customers. The staff is always pleasant, the grounds are always tidy, and everything -- from plants to buildings -- are well maintained. This year, timely investment in a frost fan and an irrigation system means they have apples for picking despite this year's odd weather conditions. Aside from picking apples and pumpkins, there's a farm yard full of kids' activities. My children love the enormous jumping pillow, but there's also the "Apple Train" among other activities. It's a small tractor pulling several barrels that have been creatively turned into "cars" on the train. Like everything else at Jonamac, it's adorable and well done.

We have not yet made the trip to Johansen Farms in Bolingbrook, but their promotional materials keep catching my eye, mostly because they, too, offer a train ride among their kids' activities. Others that advertise train rides include the Hootenanny Railroad at Bengtson's in Homer Glen -- this one is a real mini-train that leaves from a cute station -- and the "Pumpkin Mine Kiddie Train" -- a tractor-pulled ride with "train" cars -- at Siegel's Cottonwoood Farm in Crest Hill. So there's always a chance that a fall day at the farm can turn into yet another train trip for the family.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

South Elgin: Fox River Trolley Museum

A sign from local rail lines of the past. 
Stops included the
"Yeoman City of Childhood."

Red trolley! Trolley rides begin at the "Castle Muir" station
and gift shop at the north end of the property. 
Waiting for the return train at the Jon Duerr Forest Preserve
Our brave girl and her dad on the hand car
Our family usually makes at least one trip to South Elgin's Fox River Trolley Museum each year. We often go in the fall for the Pumpkin Trolley, and many friends have made it a destination for their Polar Express Christmas program or other special events. This year we went during Trolley fest for the special treat of seeing and riding a handcar. For the fest, which was held concurrently with South Elgin's other RiverFest activities, the museum had extra rolling stock out for rides. We rode a car from the early twentieth century for the first leg of our journey along the Fox River, enjoyed the handcar and the beautiful scenery of the Jon Duerr forest preserve and then returned to the museum grounds via a Chicago CTA car. On the museum grounds, the kids enjoyed exploring other open cars and rail equipment. Some of collection is waiting for the time and resources for renovation, so there are a few cars that aren't much to look at, but the restored cars, the Fox River location and the knowledgeable volunteers always make it a pleasant outing. Be sure to watch for the Wood Cliff flag stop on the west side of the tracks during your ride.
Herself with the "new" train

Taking a look at the inside of a caboose
Some final words of wisdom

Aurora: Choo Choo's Restaurant

Push a button and this crossing signal lights up

The Hershey train brings meals and desserts to kids
With coupons for free kids meals in hand, thanks to awards from our library's summer reading program, we headed to Choo Choos in Aurora. To be perfectly honest, without those certificates, it would have been a tough sell for the grown ups. The seen-better-days landscaping doesn't exactly entice anyone in. Meandering past a Browns Chicken sign, through the Mexican restaurant half of the business and then sinking into a booth that has long since lost any supportive abilities doesn't set the stage well for a good dinner. The kids, however, have a completely different perspective. The back of the restaurant is dedicated to trains and ice cream, so there's ample train decor to look at. An animated Christmas village can be control by kids pushing buttons while waiting for their food. Meals come to kids on a train that meanders through the village and up to the tables, one trip for the main meal and another for the ice cream. So, I wouldn't call it a destination restaurant, but then I'm not a train-loving child. In their minds, any place that brings them food on a train is good indeed. Know your audience, restaurateurs. Just give their parents a reason to come back, too, please. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bartlett: 2 Toots

Two of our children had birthdays last week. In honor of the now 4-year old's special day, and because of the free kid's meal coupon from their birthday club, our celebration took us back to 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill. Since we had just been to the Glen Ellyn restaurant last week, we decided to try the second and newest location in Bartlett. 

It was a good choice. The Bartlett 2 Toots serves food just as tasty as the Glen Ellyn store and every seat in the house here, too, is trackside for meal delivery via model train. The decor is similar in both restaurants. Train pictures and memoriablia cover almost every inch of the walls, even in the bathrooms. A TV in the corner runs a Thomas the Tank Engine video constantly. My six-year old votes for Bartlet for his favorite of the two places, though. Bartlett's 2 Toots has enormous windows overlooking the the Metra station and tracks across the street. There's also a large mirror on the back wall for those facing away from the windows during their meal. Though I think it's safe to assume that it's out of 2 Toots hands which engines run on the Milwaukee District West Line, my son was thrilled by seeing not one, not two, but three new Metra engines while we ate. Near as I can tell it's the  MP36PH-3S if you were wondering. We don't often see that particular engine on the lines closer to our home, so that alone made the trip worthwhile for him. For the birthday girl, the cupcake and train whistle that rounded the restaurant track just for her made the day pretty okay, too. We noticed the baby, who hasn't started waving to people yet, did an awful lot of waving to the train every time in came out of the kitchen. Aside from Mom and Dad trying to shake the oldies tunes from our heads once we left, everyone had a fine time.

After our dinner, we crossed the street to peek in the windows of the Metra station and the Bartlett Depot Museum. Both were closed for the day when we were there, but having them so close makes Bartlett a good choice for a fuller train outing during lunchtime. Thankfully, it's a no-horn zone for the railroad, so noise isn't an issue for my little ones' sensitive ears. Another possible source of noise would be from the local fire department's station across the street from 2 Toots. All was well and quiet while we were there, though. Trains, fire trucks, food! It's kid heaven.

(Grown ups, take a peek at the renovation photos of the 1873 Bartlett Depot Museum on their website. The entire structure needed to be lifted to pour a new foundation. Impressive project and fine results!)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

More Wheaton (and Glen Ellen): Cosley Zoo and 2 Toots

We just can't get enough Wheaton this week. Earlier in the week we visited the DuPage County Historical Society for a peek at their model railroad. Wednesday night found us in the area again in need of dinner, so we stopped at the ever popular 2 Toots in nearby Glen Ellyn. Today, in an effort to prove to my daughter that kids can have other interests, we went to see the animals at Wheaton's Cosley Zoo. Turns out her favorite part there was the caboose. Just can't fight the train love.

A past meal at 2 Toots during Christmastime
 2 Toots is probably the favorite restaurant of most small railroad aficionados in the area. The concept is simple but well executed: food is delivered via model train. Guests can sit at the counter or at booths -- all seats are along the track. While waiting for the meal to come out of the kitchen and around the bend, there is plenty of railroad decor to study, a Thomas video to watch, and Metra trains passing just outside. It's impossible to have a conversation with kids at 2 Toots beyond, "Look at that!" but it's one of the few places that manages to keep busy bodies in their seats until the end of the meal. The joy of this place for Mom and Dad (and other grownups) is that the food isn't an afterthought. 2 Toots knows how to make a good meal. It's standard dinner fair, but very satisfactory.

Cosley Zoo's caboose 
Just a few miles away, Wheaton's Cosley Zoo offers a very manageable outing for families with preschoolers. It's a small zoo with a duck pond, farm animals and wildlife native to the area. Within the zoo's bright red caboose is an exhibit about Illinois' natural world. The gift shop, cafe and restrooms are located "across the tracks" in a what was once Wheaton's first train station. It's just a cute place to visit.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lisle, or maybe Wheaton: Always have a Plan B

Do you remember that old jingle, "Phone first ..."? That tune popped into my head as the kids hopped out of the car at The Museums at Lisle Station Park and shouted, "Mom, there's a sign that says it's closed." Hmm. You know, a note taped to a window that briskly says, "Sorry for the inconvenience" doesn't really appease a car-load of kids, especially the one who had his heart set on seeing the model railroad layout on the inside of  the farmhouse. So, I can't report much about what Lisle has to offer our young train fans other than the small museum campus has this to tease when the doors are locked: an 1881 caboose and a depot from 1875. (The other structures are a farmhouse, tavern/inn and a blacksmith shop.) Nice, but not quite enough to call the afternoon a success, so on to Plan B. 

We moved up the road a bit to another model railroad display, this one at the DuPage County Historical Museum in downtown Wheaton. The majority of the museum's basement is given to an HO-gauge layout with over 2,000 feet of track and numerous small-scale recreations of local landmarks. Again, we weren't there on quite the right day. Selected Saturdays throughout the year members of the DuPage Society of Model Engineers run the trains for visitors. Alas, we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully, one train can be activated to run independently by the push of a button and there are plenty of scenery details to study from the large viewing windows. There's also a kid-sized train play table and displays on the history of railroads in DuPage County.

A train zips through it's miniature Wheaton landscape
Upstairs, exhibits detail local history, including a current exhibit on the Civil War. My kids liked the station allowing them to sniff the smells familiar to solders. (Conveniently, they had just been listening to the Magic Tree House book Civil War on Sunday on our ride to the museum. Can't beat audio books for keeping young travelers entertained!) Downtown Wheaton is a stop on the Union Pacific-West line, meaning it could be a destination on a Metra ride if you plan ahead. If not, enough Metra and UP trains zip through to give kids a look at the big engines they've just seen in miniature.

Getting back to Lisle, assuming the museums are open as scheduled on another summer afternoon, could also happen via Metra on the BNSF line. Or the family van, which is always more likely. Lesson of the day: when traveling with kids, always have a back up plan and plenty of in-car amusements!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Naperville: DuPage Children's Museum

My young engineers drive the Metra 
Outside the museum, give the wheel a crank and watch the train's wheels spin.
Excited train face at the model RR

The evening before our most recent visit to the DuPage Children's Museum my oldest developed a stomachache from a bit of overindulgence at a church potluck. He was miserable, not because of any discomfort, but because he was afraid he might miss going to the museum. This is how much this place is loved. Fortunately, time and a few train videos on YouTube cure all ills and the trip went off as planned.

As a children's museum, there's no shortage of fun activities for kids of all ages and interests. From their very first visits, my children have loved the WaterWays, AirWorks, and Make It Move exhibits. Last year, however, the museum made itself even more appealing with the opening of a new exhibit: "Trains -- Get On Board!" Kids have always stopped playing to watch the Metra trains zip by just north of the museum's parking lot, but the new exhibit brings the trains right into the museum. Children can be engineers or passengers in a kid-sized Metra.  ("It's the old diesel engine," points out my boy who knows these things.) A control tower gives the children something to climb. A ticket window, engineer and conductor clothing allow for pretend play. Of course, the requisite model railroad layout fills the center of the area with viewing areas both outside and within the tracks. A few observant children might even delight in the beautiful Art Deco travel posters recalling train travel of days gone by. For the youngest members of the family, one of the museum's two Young Explorers areas for babies and toddlers is next to the train exhibit allowing fairly easy supervision of all family members at once.

Thanks to the generosity of the museum and our local library, the kids earned free admission passes for participating in the summer reading program. I was happy to find a discount coupon for myself in the Oaklees Guide. The baby just squeaked in for free since he's a few weeks shy of his first birthday. Without these discounts, everyone under 60 pays $9.50 each, so consider a membership if you'd like to make repeat visits, or do your coupon scouting homework!

The museum is at 301 N. Washington Street in Naperville. Road construction on Washington and surrounding streets is making entering the parking lot a bit of an adventure these days, so watch for construction and detour signs as you approach. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Aurora: Blackberry Farm

Watching the train from the wagon ride

I love a destination that is more than trains. Obviously we're a family that enjoys almost any railroad attraction, but certain members of the group appreciate other activities, too. Aurora's Blackberry Farm fits the bill perfectly.

As the name suggests, Blackberry Farm primarily offers farm activities. It is a living-history farm, so in addition to the animals on display (rabbit, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs), there are numerous buildings to tour that recall days gone by. The schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and log cabin are among our family's favorites. We also enjoy the Streets Museum, which recreates the feel of walking through a Victorian-era town. (Everyone enjoyed it during our most recent visit, but in previous years, the dim lighting and loud sounds of a player piano bothered younger kids.) For my girly girl, there are pony rides and a carousel. All the kids love riding the pedal tractors on the newly renovated tractor course and playing in the corn -- basically a sand table, but with dried corn instead. Mom and Dad enjoy the many quiet picnic tables for a peaceful lunch before visiting the next site.

Of course, it all comes back to the trains with us. Our most recent visit took place during the Model Train Show weekend, which gave my train fanatic four train layouts to enjoy throughout the park. Even without those displays, Blackberry Farm is still a joy for the train lover. At the center of the park is a small lake and around that lake cruises a miniature train which leaves every few minutes from a traditional train depot. (The entire facility is undergoing significant renovations this year, so most of the depot is being remodeled, but during our visit one open room offered a train table and other toys for young guests.) Thankfully, beyond the admission fee there are no additional charges for activities, so it is possible to accommodate requests to ride the train again and again. As a break from riding the train, an old-fashioned hay wagon tractor ride circles the lake in the opposite direction, giving kids a chance to see the train from another angle. 

For train lovers, nature lovers and history lovers, Blackberry Farm is a fun way to spend a day. It's big enough to offer plenty to do, but small enough to be manageable for young kids. Special events throughout the year keep it entertaining enough for repeat visits. Take note of the Polar Express program scheduled for Dec. 1, 2, 8 and 9.

On the train: The forced smiles are due to the children's concern that Dad
wouldn't get on the train before it left the station!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rochelle Railroad Park

Here's a day trip for rail fans of all ages: the Rochelle Railroad Park. Located just northwest of the intersection of interstates 88 and 39 along Illinois 38, the park allows visitors a close-up view of the junction of the Union Pacific and BNSF tracks. Each day as many as 100 trains may pass the site. To accommodate train watchers, the city of Rochelle has constructed Railroad Park. Within the triangle between the train lines, visitors can enjoy a picnic under the large covered observation pavilion, explore a reconstructed "hobo jungle" or -- the kid favorite -- climb on the 7 ton Whicomb Locomotive, a small engine built in the early 20th century in Rochelle for switch work. There's also a small gift shop with railroad memorabilia and radio/video monitoring of the transmissions between train crews and dispatchers. (For the record, there are on-site restrooms, too. If, however, you are like this mom and you realize you have arrived without the memory card in your camera, Rochelle's nearby Wal-Mart has all your absent-minded family needs and a helpful family restroom, complete with toddler-sized potty. Now you know.) 

Old-timey kids on the Whitcomb Locomotive
What's nice about this park is that it draws train lovers of all ages and backgrounds. The kids climbing on the locomotive are just as excited about the train traffic as the older folks chatting with friends at the pavilion and Lincoln Highway gazebo. These are people who arrive proudly wearing their best railroad apparel and climb in and out of vehicles with their hobby proclaimed on the license plates. Rail fans with radios to listen to dispatch chatter and use cameras both small and tripod worthy. There's even a web cam mounted on the pavilion roof for those who still wonder which trains are rolling through once they've headed home for the day.

A word of caution is in order. This is a very busy train junction. The trains are close and children must be carefully supervised. Other than in the hobo jungle area, there are no fences between the park and the tracks. The trains are also exceptionally loud. Horns blare every time the engines cross the grade. As much as my children love trains, being that close to engines that loud truly scares them. The older ones begged to go into the gift shop when the trains approached, even though they had been eagerly waiting for them to arrive. Once the engines passed, however, they wanted to head right back out again to watch the cars zoom past. So, if loud noises are an issue for your group, plan to make a lot of trips inside, bring ear protection, or plan to sit in your car when the trains approach.

A 50-ton locomotive also built in Rochelle

The pavilion 

A caboose on private property across from the park
For our most recent adventure, we stuck to the railroad park. Rochelle does have several other historical attractions that could round out a day-trip adventure, including a restored 1918 filling station, a firehouse museum, the township historical museum, and an architecturally-stunning public library. It's worth the trip.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Train toys

Two very happy engineers
Thanks to a dear neighbor's clutter clearing efforts this weekend, my kids are enjoying some "new" toys, including this newly beloved Thomas tent. Several years ago, I thought about getting this very same tent for Erik, but other toys came his way instead. Turns out, he's not too big to love it even now. You just cant beat the play tents for imagination (and storage -- love the fold-up feature!). We are ready for a rainy day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Upcoming: Blackberry Farm Model Train Show

Now that my oldest son has figure out how to read, there's no sneaking past things he will love. Yesterday he noticed a poster for the upcoming model train show at Blackberry Farm in Aurora. It's coming July 21 and 22, 11 a.m. till 4:30. He also noticed a listing for the Museums at Lisle Station Park -- including a historical train station, caboose,  farmhouse, and blacksmith shop. Assuming the heat lets up, we will see you there!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

West Chicago, Illinois

With kids in the car, the most mundane errands take on a level of excitement unheard of in the B.C. (before children) era. From time to time, I find myself needing to drive through West Chicago, Illinois. As a typical hurried adult, I don't relish the inevitable road delays resulting from the village's frequent train traffic. West Chicago traces its history to the early days of railroads in the mid 19th century. The recent acquisition one of the many rail lines through town by Canadian National has increased the rail traffic and time spent sitting at  crossings.

The perspective changes with train-loving kids in the car. Going through West Chicago is a small adventure because the odds are we will see a train, and a long one at that. Between the Canadian National and Union Pacific tracks that intersect just west of the downtown, a kid will likely see a train with multiple engines and enough box cars, coal cars, tanker cars and flat cars to challenge the counting skills of any preschooler. Because of the angle of the tracks, the noise of the rail cars bumping over the junction can be loud enough to wake sleeping babies. Otherwise, it's a delight to enjoy the enthusiasm of something so simple bringing so much joy to the backseat passengers.

Because of West Chicago's railroad history it has several sights and events that are on our Railroad To-See List. Thanks to Tara at Go West Young Mom for the suggestion to visit the West Chicago Library's children's department train: a steam-engine style train for climbing and pretending by the under six set. The city's museums, West Chicago City Museum and Kruse House Museum, feature railroad memorabilia among their collections and are sites included in the Passport to Adventure program. The city's annual festival, while not strictly railroad themed, does have the appealing name Railroad Days. This year's fest takes place July 12-15 at Reed-Keppler Park. So, there's plenty to bring us back to West Chicago for a stop beyond the railroad crossings.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Batavia Depot Museum

After a delectable ice cream dessert at the Batavia Creamery, we inevitably find ourselves walking a few short blocks to the Batavia Depot Museum. Most of our ice cream stops are usually after dinner, so we don't often get to peek inside the depot, which is open select afternoons. The highlight, though, is the caboose outside. Climbing the steps to "ride" the rails never gets old. The kids always point out the signal and water tower that are next to the station. Since the depot is sandwiched between Batavia's depot pond and riverwalk and the Fox River Trail, there's plenty of people watching for  Mom, Dad and Baby while the kids are imagining their engineer adventures. On days that we aren't craving something sweet, the Popcorn Depot just a block south of the caboose offers delicious homemade popcorn to munch while enjoying the sights.

Once again, the museum is part of this summer's Passport to Adventure program sponsored by the Kane-DuPage Regional Museum Association. The kids love collecting stamps from the participating museums in their passport books. So, we will be back soon for an inside visit of both the museum and caboose.

The kids checking out the caboose. The Depot Museum is reflected in the building  behind it. 

The Batavia Depot Museum is open from 2-4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday March through Thanksgiving. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

A visit to the Model Railroad Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Enjoying trains at the Chicago Botanic Garden's Model Railroad Garden

With another weekend in the history books, I'm uploading pictures from our Sunday afternoon adventures. Yet again trains figured prominently in our activities. With a six year old son, a three-year old daughter and a 10-month old boy, railroad-themed activities are always a big hit with our family. Our kids aren't alone in this fascination, of course. I often compare notes on best train-related destinations with other families. So, it seemed worthwhile to chronicle some of our more noteworthy rail adventures.

In honor of Fathers' Day, we wanted to do a special family outing. In past years, we have journeyed out to Union, Illinois for a day at the Illinois Railway Museum. We were up for a new adventure this year, so I checked out a free parking pass for the Chicago Botanic Garden from our library. My husband and I got engaged at the Botanic Garden, so it's special to us, but they've added a Model Railroad Garden in recent years, which was the draw for the little folks.

Corn Palace
Honestly, I thought it would simply be a train or two running past various plants. That would have been acceptable to the kids and, since we were getting in for free, I wasn't too troubled by the few extra dollars for getting into the railroad garden. I'm pleased to report that it was so much more than any "simple" railroad display. The garden is 7,500 square feet and features 17 G-Scale trains - nothing small about that. Every good model train layout features a landscape and buildings, of course. This display showcases its natural setting by running the trains past meticulously-pruned plants, over willow bark bridges above visitors heads, and around buildings built almost entirely of natural materials. The buildings are miniature representations of various American landmarks, so there's an educational element to pointing out the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore and the like. The kids particularly liked the "Old Faithful" geyser that spouted every 60 seconds. I loved the representation of Mitchell, South Dakota's Corn Palace, which in its real-life form is already covered in natural materials every year.

As for the trains themselves. Erik, my 6-year old, loved the Amtrak, but all the red engines -- his favorite color -- pleased him, too. Anna liked a little ladybug-shaped trolley. William, who was missing a nap, was content to watch all the movement of the trains and enthusiastic visitors. (Strollers aren't allowed in the Model Railroad Garden, so I was happy we had the Ergo carrier. He was glad to see everything at eye-level.)

At almost 400 acres, there's plenty more to explore at the Botanic Garden. We took at peek at the Japanese, waterfall, rose and bonsai gardens. It was a hot day and young kids who aren't getting their "quiet time" can only handle so much walking. So further family exploring will have to wait for another day.

The Chicago Botanic Garden is in Glencoe, Illinois at 1000 Lake Cook Road. Admission is free but there is a charge for parking and some sites within the garden.