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Thursday, May 25, 2017 12:15 am

Zoo, Shakespeare and history

The summer mix for Bloomington-Normal

Ewing Manor in Bloomington, the estate of the late Hazle Buck Ewing, provides the perfect setting for the summer Illinois Shakespeare Festival on the grounds.


Holding my nose in the zoo building full of big cats and apes, sampling goodies from laden family reunion tables, anticipating the first July Fourth fireworks bursting over a small lake – that’s what Miller Park meant to me as a child growing up east of Bloomington-Normal.

My family also trekked to the twin cities to see my oldest sister off to Illinois State University, school trips took my classmates and me to plays at ISU and Illinois Wesleyan, and my fiancé and I stood in line to get our marriage license at the McLean County Courthouse.

Later in life, we spent lazy summer evenings picnicking with friends while sprawled on the Ewing Manor lawn awaiting Shakespeare.

Even if you don’t have these kinds of memories associated with Bloomington-Normal, you should head 70 miles up I-55 for an excursion this summer. Miller Park still has animals, lots of picnic space and the little lake. You can experience summer theater in several locations, and you might pick up a little history at that same courthouse and at a Victorian mansion.

Galapagos tortoises enjoy the sun at the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington. The zoo also is home to snow leopards, a Sumatran tiger, harbor seals, flamingos, reindeer and wallabies.


Miller Park
at 1020 S. Morris Avenue in Bloomington is a good place to start with its updated indoor and outdoor zoo exhibits, including a sun bear, snow leopards, harbor seals, a Sumatran tiger, flamingoes, reindeer, wallabies and Galapagos tortoises. Kids will like the carousel, tropical rainforest and animal feeding times. Children under 2 are free, those 2-13 are $4.95, adults up to 59 are $6.95, and seniors and military members are $5.95. The zoo is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Next door is an extensive and softly cushioned playground, splash pad, mini golf course (being renovated) and full-size steam locomotive.

Explore the lake on rented paddleboats and stroll the winding paths shaded by mature trees. Be sure to take a gander at the 1905 pavilion, which was known for big band dances in its heyday. The building was restored in 1977 and hosts wedding receptions and other events.

An outdoor community theater runs in the summer, and fireworks over the lake continue each July Fourth.

More professional theater abounds at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival at the Ewing Cultural Center, 48 Sunset Road in Bloomington. The 40th season, which runs June 28 to Aug. 12, features A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cymberline, the humorous I Heart Juliet (held at Westhoff Theatre on the ISU campus) and the Improvised Shakespeare Company from Chicago.

The 40th season of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival runs June 28 to Aug. 12.


Prices range from $12 to $49 per play, depending on the day and proximity to the outdoor stage. If it is a warm evening, dress lightly and bring a fan. Arriving early allows you to picnic on the rolling lawn, visit the Japanese garden and stroll the Genevieve Green Gardens surrounding the manor, once home to the late Hazle Buck Ewing.

If you don’t want to attend a performance you can wander the grounds free from 8 a.m. to dark daily. Tours of the English Tudor-style manor are available free from 4 to 6 p.m. on Mondays from May to October except for holidays.

Jump ahead several centuries to the David Davis mansion, a state historic site at 100 E. Monroe in Bloomington, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.Wednesday through Saturday. Davis was a confidante to Abraham Lincoln, who named him to the U.S. Supreme Court. The restored mansion holds a decorative arts collection and Victorian furnishings. On the grounds, Sarah’s Garden has the same design, flower beds and paths that Davis’ wife created in 1872.

In 1991 and after renovation, the McLean County Museum of History moved into the old courthouse, which closed in 1976. Today the building at 200 N. Main in downtown Bloomington houses Route 66 memorabilia on the ground floor and displays about early settlers, farming, politics and jobs on the upper floors. Visitors can view the rotunda and dome and step inside a courtroom with the original jury box and judge’s bench. Children would enjoy the discovery room, where they can milk a pretend cow and gather eggs from a pretend hen house.

Next-door Normal is home to a popular children’s museum and the historic Normal Theater, which features independent films and documentaries. The ISU campus has a center for the performing arts and a planetarium.

For fun in the sun, the town offers two extensive aquatic centers with waterslides, spray areas and pools for all ages while the 45-mile Constitution Trail gives walkers and bicyclists the opportunity to travel throughout the twin cities and outskirts.

Go to www.visitbn.org for more information on Bloomington-Normal.

Mary Bohlen of Springfield enjoys visiting Midwestern spots and writing about them.

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