Upstate New York, it turns out, is a treasure trove of museums, sites and landmarks that are ideal for an educational trip with the kids. Sure, sunny resort destinations and tropical beach towns make for a fun family vacation in an obvious sort of way. But a family trip along New York State’s historical route – walking where prominent figures in history walked, discovering sites where important events had taken place – is not just eye-opening, it’s refreshing and memorable as well.
From Albany to Syracuse to the smaller towns all the way north along Lake Champlain, here are some of the historical attractions you absolutely need to visit with the kids for lessons in history the kids won’t soon forget.
Plattsburgh, New York and the Battle of Lake Champlain
Pack the car for a road trip, gather the troop and head to Plattsburgh, New York. The small city near the Canadian border was the site of a number of historic events like the famous Battle of Lake Champlain, which essentially ended the British invasions in the early 1800s. Family-friendly Clinton County Historical Museum houses valuable resources that together tell the story of that fateful day, including a massive diorama depicting the battle. The museum is also home to paintings, maps, books, and historic articles (such as pieces of a gun carriage from Benedict Arnold’s flagship, clothing and musical instruments) that showcase life in Clinton County since the 1600th.
Drive 5 minutes north to Downtown Plattsburgh where the Kent-Delord House Museum sits along the northern bank of Saranac River. The historic house was built in 1797 and was home to the Delord family from 1810 to 1913. It was also temporarily occupied by British officers before the Battle of Lake Champlain. Today, the house showcases many of the family’s portraits, furniture, dinnerware and other personal items, and is furnished as it may have been when the family still lived there, giving guests a good glimpse of how a very wealthy family around that time might have lived. The kids will be impressed by the large fireplace in the kitchen and the apothecary in the back room. The house, painted white with a gable roof, also affords a great view of the river, the neighboring Champlain Park and Lake Champlain.
Comfort Inn & Suites, only 10 minutes from Downtown Plattsburgh, is a great, kid-friendly base, due to its very spacious rooms that come with microwave units, the nearby Plattsburgh Brewing Company, and the onsite indoor splash park, Champy’s Fun Zone.
Restaurant suggestion: The Plattsburgh Brewing Company serves hearty meat, fish and pasta dishes perfect for a family-style dinner.
Peru, New York and the Underground Railroad
Next day, drive less than half an hour to Peru, New York, a city that played a major part in the Underground Railroad. Start your day at the kid-favorite Babbie Rural and Farm Learning Museum, a wonderful educational center that allows kids of all ages to learn all about farm life in the Adirondack before the 50s in a very interactive setting. Antique appliances as well as domestic and farm work devices that heavily depend on simple machines are housed in this museum, some available for kids to “operate.” In its grounds are a milk house, a horse and cow barn, a blacksmith shop and more. Kids get a kick out of operating the wooden “washing machine” and are drawn to the ice harvesting tools that look exactly like what Kristoff and the other ice farmers used in Frozen.
Later, head to the North Star Underground Railroad Museum, an important stop if your family is interested in learning more about the northern part of the Underground Railroad. Located next to the extraordinary Ausable Chasm, this unassuming yet impressive museum contains documents, artifacts and plenty of extraordinary stories about the men, women and children who escaped slavery and the people who helped them. Stay long enough to watch the multi-sensory production that tells the story of John Thomas and his family, and the heart wrenching short movie that recounts the stories of others like him.
Take some time to go on a tour of the Underground Railroad sites in the area, led by Don Papson, the man most responsible for the stories told in the North Star Underground Railroad Museum. The special mini-bus tour, held every first and third Saturday of each month, will take you and the kids to some of the most important Underground Railroad sites in Peru and Ausable Chasm, including the Stephen Keese homestead, which has a secret barn room that served as a hiding place for runaway slaves that took shelter in the farm.
Before leaving the museum, be sure to pick up a copy of Don Papson and Tom Calarco’s book, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City, to continue your family’s education.
Restaurant suggestions: Pasquales Pizzaria has a sit-down restaurant that serve delicious clam chowder and has a huge selection of lunch options.
New York’s Historic Capital
Once home to many of New York’s elites, it’s no surprise that the state’s capital city is home to a number of sites that played important roles in the country’s cultural and political history. There are 57 sites on the National Register of Historic Places and five National Historic Landmarks in the city, including the impressive Ten Broeck Mansion.
Head south from Peru to visit the Federal-style mansion in Albany’s Arbor Hill District. Ten Broeck Mansion was home to some of the city’s prominent figures, including General Abraham Ten Broeck and Thomas Worth Olcott. Today, it serves as a historic house museum that showcases not just its own history but also the history of its several owners and the city itself, documented in its different architectural additions (Greek Revival, for example) and design styles. Take some time to explore the attic, which mostly served as the slaves’ quarters, and the basement, where a surprise awaits. If you’re visiting in the summertime, explore its beautiful, well-tended gardens.
Not far from the mansion is the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence, home to Stephen and Harriett Myers. Stephen, who was himself a slave in his youth, was one of the most important leaders of the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist Movement in the area, and it was he and his wife who were the point people in Albany, assisting runaway slaves as they made their way through Albany. Their brick townhouse still stands today; and although it is still very much under renovation, it is available for visits. Stop by with the kids and learn about how this power couple spent nearly three decades dedicating their lives to the cause.
To really understand the Abolitionist Movement, you must learn about the beginnings of slavery. The Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer, New York, is a great place to start. Originally owned by Dutch-American Hendrick Van Rensselaer, the manor is now a museum. It not only showcases the lives of Dutch immigrants in the new world, it also currently houses an exhibit called A Dishonorable Trade: Human Trafficking in the Dutch Atlantic World, which talks about how the Dutch brought and sold slaves to the Americas as part of the Triangular Slave Trade.
Hilton Albany in Downtown Albany is a modernist family-friendly hotel that features deluxe furnishings to make your family stay in Albany not just comfortable but also luxurious. Newly renovated, the hotel features spacious guest rooms with great views of the city, complementary WiFi, and a heated indoor pool.
Restaurant suggestions: Stop at Allie B’s Cozy Kitchen for lunch for some hearty Southern style cooking. Owner and chef Kizzy’s fried chicken, barbecue pork ribs, macaroni salad and corn bread are the perfect energy boosts to continue your family’s educational tour of Albany. For dinner, Jack’s Oyster House serves amazing steak and seafood dishes. Be sure to call to make a reservation.
Peterboro, New York, and the Gerrit Smith Estate
The next day, drive west towards Syracuse and continue your tour of Upstate New York’s portion of the Underground Railroad by driving out to the Gerrit Smith National Historic Landmark. The estate, now a part of the NYS Freedom Trail, played a significant role in the abolition of slavery as well as the start of the Women’s Rights movement in the country. Discover how Gerrit Smith spent his millions and used the land office in his estate to financially support freedom fighters such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and John Brown, and how he helped fund the abolitionist parties that later banded together to form the Republican Party, whose first presidential candidate – President Abraham Lincoln – played a major role in successfully abolishing slavery once and for all.
Your next stop must be the National Abolition Hall of Fame, which is housed in a historic town hall and community center. Explore the exhibits and learn more about the inductees – the men and women who were instrumental to the abolitionist movement, and discover some of the important artifacts housed there including a copy of Abe Lincoln’s first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which features the president’s thumbprint.
The historic Lincklaen House in idylic Cazenovia, NY, is a cozy, family-friendly hotel option if you want to keep with the theme of the trip. The beautiful hotel offers a more bed-and-breakfast style accommodation, with its charming furnishings and complimentary continental breakfast.
The hotel’s Seven Stone Steps tavern has a great selection of French- and American-style dishes for dinner. Try the Seafood Bisque or the French Onion Soup to start, and be sure to ask for their delicious Popovers and honey butter.
Chittenango, New York, Birthplace of L. Frank Baum
Spend the last day of your educational trip learning about Chittenango’s history, starting at the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum. The indoor/outdoor museum is home to a number of exhibits that showcase the area’s thriving canal trade and have proven very fascinating for the kids. Explore the excavated boat docks, a life-size boat recreation, and the several buildings that would have existed during the canal era; and find out how the boat traffic in the Old Erie Canal would have brought much business to the site. The kids will love the indoor exhibits that include a recreation of the original general store on site, a working blacksmith shop, a display of ice farming tools (Frozen), and a miniature interactive model of how the mules used to drag those massive boats across the canal. If you have times to spare, walk a portion of the Canalway Trail, which stretches from just outside Syracuse all the way to Durhamville, New York.
Save All Things Oz Museum for last. Along the yellow brick road in downtown Chittenango is this small yet wonderful museum which commemorates not just the famous book but also the man responsible for creating the world of Oz. Take the kids to see the museum’s colorful exhibits, which feature everything from original copies of the book series to Oz-related collectibles and memorabilia including stuff from The Wiz and Wicked. Gregory Maguire himself has visited the museum, and will inspire the kids to read the brilliant book series, if they haven’t already.
You cannot leave New York without having that famous New York pizza. While in the area, stop by the family-friendly Wicked Good Pizza. It’s part of the new Wizard of Oz-themed Yellow Brick Road Casino, but has a separate entrance so that kids are welcome. The casino is super clean and smoke-free anyway, so dining here is worry free. Not only this place serve delicious pizza in massive slices, they also make terrific chicken wings in different flavors. Try the Garlic Parmesan and the Everything Chicken Wings, ask what their slice of the day is, and order the salad to share.
Michelle Rae Uy contributed this to MiniTime. She is a travel writer based in Los Angeles and MiniTime’s Head of Content, who spends her free time on adventures and film photography.
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