Triceratops on display in Rockford IL

Triceratops on display in Rockford IL

Do you know why barns are painted red?

It seems that farmers used to make their own paint from things like linseed oil and iron oxide when gave paint the red color and created a durable finish that protected the wooden barns.  Now, it’s a tradition.

I learned that at the Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, IL where there is an entire area devoted to farming—from the chance to “milk” a cow (did you know dairy cows eat 90 pounds of food a day?),  to smelling the scents of a farmyard (can you recognize manure? dirt? clover?)  We learn that farmers could milk six cows in an hour by hand.  Now, with machines, they can milk over 100 cows an hour.  There’s even a giant puzzle that explains the different parts of a cow and a pig and what kind of meat they give us.

Who knew the small city of Rockford, IL a little more than an hour from Chicago is home to Jane, the most complete juvenile T-Rex (about 11 years old, scientists estimate) and Homer, the most complete adolescent Triceratops.  You can visit them both at the Burpee Museum of Natural History. 

And if you think your teenaged boy eats a lot, consider the triceratops Homer (yes he was named for Homer Simpson by the man who discovered his bones in Montana).  He was seven feet tall, 20 feet long and weighed more than two tons.

Truth be told, paleontologists don’t really know whether Jane or Homer were male or female.  Jane was named for Jane Solem, a major benefactor of the museum and Homer by Helmuth Redschlag, who apparently loves the Simpsons and discovered the cache of juvenile triceratops bones in Southeast Montana.

While you’re in town,  you’ve got to stop at the Stockholm Inn for their famous Swedish Pancakes with lingonberry sauce and walk off that treat at the Japanese Garden where the kids can feed the giant koi (I’ve never seen any this big!).

Oz Museum - Wamego KS

Oz Museum – Wamego KS

Being in Rockford for a travel writers conference—Travel Media Showcase— and talking to a lot of people from Midwest cities and States—Peoria and St.  Paul,  the Quad Cities in Western Illinois and Eastern Iowa, Fort Wayne and Kansas City—made me realize once again how much the Midwest has to offer families.  That’s especially true in fall when there are corn mazes,  (the world’s largest in Spring Grove, IL Richardson’s Adventure Farm), apple festivals (Bayfield, WI), the chance to design your own tractor (John Deere Museum in Moline, IL)  or try your hand at “driving” a huge truck down a mine (the new Caterpillar Visitor Center in Peoria, IL).  There’s even a scarecrow festival (in St Charles, IL) or the chance to ride on a riverboat on the Mississippi River  (Davenport, IA).

Too often, we forgo smaller destinations that offer such rich experiences for our kids. When my kids were small, we lived in Chicago and made it an annual tradition to go pick pumpkins and at the holidays and chop down our own Christmas Tree.  In summer, we headed to a lake resort in Minnesota where the kids spent the week fishing and chasing frogs.

But I think harvest season in the Midwest offers something really special.  Here’s just a sampling of what’s out there:

–PEORIA’s Caterpillar Visitors Center touts huge machinery on display and you can virtually drive them.  How well could you operate a Cat tractor?  Nearby is Ackerman Farms (Did you know 85 per cent of the nation’s pumpkins come from this region?).  Come in October for the Punkin Chuckin’ contests where a catapult slings giant pumpkins at a target.

–MOLINE is the world headquarters for Deere and Company and at the John Deere Pavilion you can try toe machine simulators, sit in a cab of a huge combine, or play with the kids in the kids hands on area.

Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway from Pallisades in Illinois

Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway from Pallisades in Illinois

–More than 600 varieties of cheese are made in Wisconsin—more than any other state—and you can visit farms and cheese factories.   Large numbers of Swiss immigrants came to Wisconsin in the 19th Century bringing their cheese making prowess with them.  The town of Monroe is considered the nation’s Swiss Cheese capitol and is home to the Historic Cheese=making Center.  You’ll find cheese factory tours including at Simpn’s Specialty Cheese in Little Chute, Bass Lake Cheese Factory in Somerset and many more.

I was surprised to learn that Wisconsin is the national leader in cranberry farming, producing more than half the cranberries we eat.  Visit the Cranberry Discovery Center in Warrens and in fall, the cranberry bogs.  There is a self-guided Cranberry Highway audio tour or come to the largest Cranberry Festival in the country in Warren.  There is so much beautiful fall foliage in Wisconsin that they have created a special website– to tell you where you will find peak colors when.

Let’s not forget that Wisconsin is home to the Wisconsin Dells, the waterpark capitol of the world with the largest concentration of indoor and outdoor water parks anywhere. 

Birders paradise on the National Scenie cay in Kansas

Birders paradise on the National Scenic Byway in Kansas

WATCH BALD EAGLES  just east of the Mississippi River in Illinois, especially in the winter, or visit some 150,000 migrating seabirds at a time in Great Bend, Kansas, about two hours now of Wichita Kansas Dept of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

McHenry County, IL not only boasts the world’s largest corn maze at Richardson’s Adventure Farm but the world’s largest Railway Museum.  If you have kids who love Thomas the Tank Engine, they’ll love the collection of steam, diesel and electric locomotives, passenger and Freight cars at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union. Teens would love Terror on the Railroad as you take a ride on the possessed Screamliner.

EAT the biggest caramel apple you’ve ever seen in Fort Wayne, IN at DeBrand Chocolates, where you can also find out your family history at The Genealogy Center –the country’s largest public genealogy library.  The trained genealogists will work one on one with you for free.  Head out of town to visit Grabill, IN where the Amish community welcomes the chance to show visitors their way of life.

Saint Paul on the Mississippi River - Photo by Nattapol Pornsalnuwat

Saint Paul on the Mississippi River – Photo by Nattapol Pornsalnuwat

SHOP TILL YOU DROP at the Mall of America in Minneapolis—let’s not forget there’s no clothing tax in Minnesota which claims it has the worlds largest trick or treat event with 520 stores, not to mention an ever-growing indoor amusement park with 30 rides.

You’ll find fall festivals and celebrations throughout Minnesota, where there are two dozen different kinds of apples at orchards throughout the state.  At Center Creek Orchard in Fairmont, for example, there is a fall festival every weekend with hay rides, scarecrow building and pick your own apples.

Ready to make some apple pies?