I’ve passed the signs for Naper Settlement dozens of times, but I still wasn’t sure exactly what it was. In June, my girlfriend and I took our daughters, ages 5 and 6, there on a Thursday afternoon that started in sunshine and ended up with a thunderstorm. Still, we made a lovely memory and we’ll definitely go back! Here’s what you can expect at Naper Settlement, and why you should try to make your first visit on a day when the junior volunteers will be present.
Name and Background: Naper Settlement is an outdoor history museum, focused on the 19th century and located on 12 acres in downtown Naperville. It was originally founded in 1969 by a group of individuals who wanted to save the Civil War-era St. John’s Episcopal Church from demolition. It now features about 20 structures, as well as costumed interpreters during the summer season. Each year it attracts about 125,000 visitors, including 35,000 northern Illinois schoolchildren who tour the site as part of field trips.
Getting there: Naper Settlement is located at 523 S. Webster Street. The parking lot is located at the southwest corner of Porter Avenue and Webster Street. Find info on accessible parking here.
Hours: The hours vary depending on the season, so please check them yourself on the website before heading out. The “summer season” is April through October, when Naper Settlement is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
When to Visit: Naper Settlement definitely seems like a place that “comes alive” in summer, so it would be great to make your first visit then. Also, during the warmer months, there are “junior volunteers” present on Saturdays and Sundays (and on Thursdays in the summer). These kids, in grades 4-8, dress in period clothing and can help your family understand what life for children was like in northern Illinois in the 19th century. When we visited on a Thursday in June, my daughter and her friend went to school in the one-room schoolhouse with the volunteers, then played period games with them during “recess.” Several girls instructed us how to do chores like the laundry and grinding corn into meal, and a group of the junior volunteers were helping children walk on stilts, jump rope and play with a hoop and stick in the center of the grounds.
Admission: Naperville residents are admitted free with proof of residency. For non-Naperville residents, admission during the summer season is $12 for adults ages 13 and older, $10 for seniors, $8 for youth ages 4-12 and free for children under 4.
Amenities: The visitors’s center, where you’ll enter the grounds and pay your admission, features nice bathrooms, and I saw at least one other set of indoor bathrooms on the grounds. The visitor’s center would also offer several convenient spots to nurse a baby in semi-privacy. There is no food sold at Naper Settlement, other than a couple of vending machines with soda and water. You can bring a picnic onto the grounds; there are picnic tables and plenty of shade. Geocaching is available at Naper Settlement from April through October. There’s also a mobile tour you can utilize via your cell phone.
Naper Settlement holds a number of special events each year, including summer camps, history lectures, holiday craft classes and kids programs in which groups can spend an evening or overnight at the settlement. Look under “Programs” on the website for details. It also has a number of structures that are available to rent for parties, weddings and meetings.
Good For: The grounds are absolutely beautiful, and kids of all ages would likely have fun running around and exploring. But for kids to actually start to appreciate the history element, they probably need to be age 5 on up.
Our Experience: We arrived at Naper Settlement at about 1 p.m. on a warm Thursday in June and found street parking near the entrance. After paying our admission fees in the visitor’s center, getting maps and using the bathroom, we headed outside.
My daughter and here friend were entranced by the junior volunteers playing various 19th century games outside “Paw Paw Post Office.” They likely would have stayed there most of the afternoon. (See more under the “When to Visit” section.)
But my friend and I wanted to tour at least a few of the buildings, and we got to spend time learning how newspapers were printed in the Print Shop, the obstacles faced by pioneer families in the Log House and how challenging a teacher’s job would have been in the Copenhagen Schoolhouse. Our daughters were, surprisingly enough, most interested in the blacksmith’s presentation in the Blacksmith Shop — and not surprising at all, playing tag with the junior volunteers outside the schoolhouse. All the costumed interpreters we met were interesting, friendly and glad to answer questions.
It was a lovely, relaxed, educational day — until a pretty serious thunderstorm hit about two hours after our arrival. We dashed to the visitor’s center, where we spent some time playing in a hands-on exhibit devoted to games of decades past. Looking at the map of Naper Settlement buildings, I realize that we still have a lot of the grounds to see, and we’ll certainly be returning, hopefully this summer.
Upcoming Events as of July 2014: This summer, “Settlement Sundays” will be held through Aug. 24. Admission to the museum will include free sundaes with do-it-yourself toppings and hands-on family activities and games. Sundaes are served from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. The settlement is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.