April 14, 2018 | Destinations

Gardens. Golf. And Patton Tanks. Read On.

Manicured  gardens. A perfectly groomed golf course. And tanks. Tanks? Yes indeed. Welcome to one of the best day trips in the Chicagoland area and home of one of our Top 100 military destinations. Welcome to Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois and its 500 acres of perfection.  Welcome to the First Division Museum and an incredible story centered on tanks.

Cantigny Park is the former estate of Chicago Tribune publisher Colonel Robert McCormick and is named after the French town of Cantigny which McCormick’s troops took in the first  major battle of US soldiers in WWI. In the center of the park is the First Division Museum (McCormick’s own division) with an outdoor park of perfectly restored US Army tanks. It’s a beautiful place to visit and a favorite destination for local families whose children have grown up climbing on the 11 tanks positioned around the front of the museum.

Museum curator Bill Brewster winced when we asked him about that tradition of allowing kids to climb all over the tanks. “You’d be surprised the damage children can do to tanks,” he said – fully aware of the irony that 30-ton armored vehicles that survived battles in the Middle East, Europe and Africa might be vulnerable to kids.

We also asked Bill what his favorite parts of the museum are, and were surprised at his response. They aren’t the incredible dioramas of the Battle of the Bulge and Omaha Beach, which put visitors right in the middle of the scene. They aren’t even the new, you-are-there experiences the museum offers – the chance to put on virtual reality goggles to experience a raid on a terrorist’s home, or to climb inside a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to watch footage from the tank battle of 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. Although he’s very proud of those exhibits, Bill is a storyteller, and so his favorite displays involve things like a helmet with a bullet hole in it (and the story of the soldier who survived), a Viet Cong uniform and field pack (not the kind of thing American soldiers typically brought home) and the First Division’s actual map for the D-Day landings.  

In the basement of the museum is a research center, which anyone is welcome to visit. Ask Eric Gillespie, Cantigny Park’s director of research, to show you the full set of  original D-Day maps and orders. The plans you’ll see are for the landings on no less than Omaha Beach.

This is a place to spend a full day. Play a round of gold (27 holes await), walk the gardens (29 acres are there for you to contemplate), or just explore this superb museum. You’ll start with a walk through the trenches of WWI, then through a portal into the landings on Omaha, on to the Battle of the Bulge, and into the Vietnam dioramas (you are a part of it, jungle foliage an all). Cross the main hall to the VR experience, the incredible 270-degree footage of Fright Night, the tank battle of Operation Desert Storm,  and the many exhibits on Contingency Operations that fill this wing. Finally, end where you started. The kids will be climbing the turret of that Patton battle tank or crawling under that Sherman but more to the point, they’ll be all smiles (and ready for bed).