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When it comes to American history, are your kids doing the happy dance, or is it just “meh”? And if it’s the latter, how do you get your kids to fall in love with American history? Our recent trip on the New York Path Through History Trail only reaffirmed how much fun history can be, especially when you know where to go. Here are 13 must-visit stops on the Trail to let your kids learn while they’re having fun.
Truth? I live close to New York State but had only been to a couple of cities. A state road trip was always on my travel bucket list, but the stars had never aligned until recently. So, The Kid and I hopped in the car and spent a week checking out American history sites on the New York Path Through History Trail. And not only did my teen daughter learn plenty of cool facts, I did, too! Here are my fave places to take the kiddos, why you should give them a try, and what makes them especially cool.
- See How the Locals Lived
- There’s Ghosts in Them There Hills
- The Power of Play
- Girl Power!
- More Girl Power!
- A Store where Time Stands Still
- Historical Museum Beauty
- Don’t Leave Me Hanging
- All the Books
- Canal Travel
- More Canal Travel
- Auntie Em!
1. See How the Locals Lived
The official description of Genessee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, NY,is that it has restored historic buildings and costumed interpreters in a 19th Century country village. But it really is so much more than that. GVC&M has taken actual homes throughout the state, picked them up, and moved them to the museum. And the costumed interpreters are so skilled and knowledgeable that we actually felt like we had time traveled a couple of centuries back.
Must Sees: George Eastman’s childhood home. He was the founder of Eastman Kodak, and the Greek Revival-style home is as lovely outside as in. Also make sure to check out the working farm (complete with farm animals!), and the stores where you can buy old-school toys and treats. Do the kids love to play dress up? Make sure they hit the John H. Wehle Gallery. Once they find their favorite costume, they can take a look at actual period clothing and dream about what life was like wearing the pieces.
2. There’s Ghosts in Them There Hills
Okay, I’m not going to lie. Rolling Hills Asylum in East Bethany, NY, is not for everyone, but it was definitely for me and my teen. Dubbed “The Most Haunted Asylum in the USA,” RSA was once the home to state residents that didn’t have one. It also housed mentally insane, orphans, unwed mothers – you name it. What’s even more fascinating is the fact that they all lived side by side.
Fast forward to present day, where the owner gives both historical and ghost tours. Choose according to your thrill level, as each is very affordable. Love spooky and kooky? Sign up for a haunted tour. Not a fan of all-things scary? Go for a historical daytime tour that will show you just how beautiful abandoned buildings can be.
TravelingMom Tip: Tours sell out very fast, so make sure to lock one down as soon as you’re able.
The Jell-O Gallery Museum in LeRoy, NY, is a cute, easy museum to bring back childhood dessert memories. Filled with everything from molds to recipes to a scavenger hunt, the museum is bold and colorful and a fun pit stop if you’re in the area. The Museum is only opened seasonally at this point (April 1 -December 31 with holidays off), so if you’re planning a visit, double check dates and times.
TravelingMom Tip: Make sure to check out the museum’s lower level filled with LeRoy, NY, historical artifacts.
4. The Power of Play
You definitely don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the Strong Museum of Play, for sure. But taking the kids to the massive Rochester, NY, family hot spot is a must in my book. The museum is all about interactive experiences and learning through play (the best way!), and it really is okay to act like a kid again. The kids will love pretending to be a Wegmans grocery store shopper and then flipping roles to become an employee to check out what they’ve selected.
Small children will adore climbing and playing in the Sesame Street area where they can sit on the famous stoop and sing the theme song. Another hot spot is Literary Adventureland, where we walked into a giant pop-up book with five different themes.
As for teens, my daughter was all about the gaming exhibits. The Strong has rooms dedicated to pinball machines, classic arcade games, and a Toy Hall of Fame.
TravelingMom Tip: If you want to really see and try everything the hands-on museum has to offer, plan on spending an entire day visiting. We were there for a couple of hours and barely scratched the surface.
5. and 6. Girl Power!
Since my teen is fascinated by history (I know, I’m lucky), it was a no-brainer to take a peek at the spots where Women’s Rights steamrolled into the movement we know today. If you have a kiddo who loves the cool stories and history behind the movement, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, is a must-stop.
The museum is incredibly powerful and showcases how it all began with the first Women’s Rights Convention. We loved hearing and reading about Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and women’s rights leaders, abolitionists, and other 19th century reformers.
TravelingMom Tip: Make sure to check out the Wesleyan Chapel: the place where a two-day consideration of women’s rights took place – and the place where the Declaration of Sentiments was created.
The Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, NY, is a powerful place. I mean, just think about it for a minute: Miss Anthony risked her life to give other women the chance to thrive in equality. We toured her home, learned about one of her favorite guests (Frederick Douglass), and I know I felt a moving “girl power!” theme.
Did you know? Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting? Make sure to ask about the highly theatrical way she was led away in handcuffs!
Bonus Spot: Susan B. Anthony Grave
While you’re on an “empower women” journey, make a beeline to the Susan B. Anthony Grave site, also in Rochester. What struck me as truly moving is the modest tombstone and beautiful location in Mount Hope Cemetery. Want goosebumps? When I visited, I learned about the thousands of women voters who made a pilgrimage to her site of burial on the day of the 2018 presidential election. Now that’s a strong story!
7. A Store Where Time Stands Still
Historic Palmyra, NY, has been named “The Most Haunted Place in The Finger Lakes,” so we had to make a pit stop and check out two of its famous properties. The William Phelps General Store is a trip back in time and it’s absolutely gorgeous. From the brown paper and string that used to tie up purchases to scales and cash registers, the store is a history lesson come to life.
Then there’s the Historic Palmyra Museum. Make sure you have good walking shoes on, because you’ll be climbing stairs and walking through several rooms. You’ll find antique furniture and dolls, and even tour where the Phelps Family lived. Learning how locals lived through hands-on exploration really brings history to life.
8. Historical Museum Beauty
The Seneca Falls Historical Society in Seneca Falls, NY, may be three stories tall, but its stories and tales are ten times that. The property is a 23-room, Queen Anne-style mansion that includes furnishings from the period. Ask the tour guides and they’ll tell you about the family that lived in the mansion, its employees, too.
What we found especially fun is The Beehive out back. The old general store was the place to buy goods and supplies, but what is truly interesting is that it was the place where the locals went to get the town news.
9. Don’t Leave Me Hanging!
Visit enough old county jails and you’ll recognize a crazy pattern: many times the sheriff and his family would live in the same building as its prisoners. The wife would cook for the family, as well as any inmates, and that’s how it was. I couldn’t imagine it, if only for the noise and chaos that would take place daily.
The Museum of Wayne County History, the former Wayne County Jail, is part of that crazy history. We took a tour of its 24 cells and learned about William Fee. Fee was the only man to be hanged in Wayne County and it caused quite a stir in 1860. To avoid a large crowd, gallows were constructed inside the jail! The history surrounding that day is fascinating, so don’t forget to ask about it when you tour.
10. All the Books
My daughter loves old books, as in she’ll buy any that cross her path if affordable enough. So she really had a jaw-dropping moment at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY, when she learned of its extensive 19th Century women’s book collection. The collection was owned by William Henry Seward, a New York State Senator, Governor of New York, a U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State in the Lincoln and Johnson administrations who was one of the targets in the Lincoln assassination plot. Yeah, I had no idea until we toured. While I could write about how it all went down, hearing firsthand from a docent is much more fascinating.
Officially opened to the public in 1955, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark and prides itself on being one of the most original collections of any American historic home.
Translation? You’ll see original furnishings and paintings. You’ll also learn about the art of fan flirtation. Yeah, that was a thing a couple of hundred years ago.
11. and 12. Canal Travel
A couple of months ago, Mr. Locke and I had the pleasure of biking the Ohio & Erie Canal from Canton to Canal Fulton, Ohio. Biking 15 miles in only a couple of hours, we made a few stops along the way to simply take in the sights. I thought about those canal boats and how each was pulled for its entire journey by mules and young boys. Yeah. Those young boys has a rough life, for sure.
So, you can imagine our delight with the Erie Canal Museum, in Syracuse, NY, which brought even more history to my eyes and ears. The last standing Weighlock Building in the U.S., it has 150 years in its rooms and halls. If you want to know about its haunted tales, get a group of 10 or more together and book a docent-led haunted history tour. If you’re not up for that, you can always check it out by day- that’s what we did. There are plenty of learning opportunities, too.
Canal Boat Recreation
My grandfather used to work at the dry docks in Saint John, New Brunswick, so I already knew what they were. If you don’t know what dry docks are, here’s the quick version. It’s where boats are removed from the water, repaired, and sent on their merry way.
The dry docks at Chittenango Landing, NY, are now home to its Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum. Sure, you’ll hear tales of a massive boiler accident that killed workers. You’ll also hear the tale of a young boy who jumped off a bridge and into the water, losing his life. But you’ll see so much more. The Museum has paintings, a scale canal boat that you can walk through, and a working blacksmith’s shop. You’ll also dig the guides who have plenty of personal stories to tell.
13. Auntie Em!
“The Wizard of Oz” is a true classic, both in literary and movie forms. And there’s no better way to salute both than with a dedicated museum, right? In the city of Chittenengo, NY, All Things Oz is just that. Located in the hometown of L. Frank Baum, the town gem has case after case of tribute pieces. What’s fascinating are the tales from the owner and the Baum backstory. Did you know that the city of Oz was made up off the cuff when Baum was asked by a child?
Make sure to mosey through All Things Oz, especially if you’re a fan. You’ll find both old and new in its timeline of Oz history. My teen loved the tales.