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Walk through American history at these engaging museums

Visit these historical sites in the northern Mississippi River states to learn about the industries and individuals that shaped the region.

Abe Lincoln Museum in Springfield IL
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Credit: Illinois Office of Tourism)

The history of Mississippi River Country is the history of America. These museums and historical sites in the northern states of Mississippi River Country offer exciting exhibits and hands-on learning to share the stories of the people and events that influenced the United States.

Mill City Museum, Minnesota

This is probably the best-smelling museum you’ll ever visit. Sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, the Mill City Museum makes its home in the site of a former flour mill and tells the story of how the region’s flour mills drove the development of Minneapolis and the Twin Cities. One of the highlights of the museum is the “Flour Tour,” where visitors sit inside a massive freight elevator to see multimedia exhibits that illustrate how flour mills worked, ending with a stunning view of St. Anthony Falls. Another highlight? The museum’s Baking Lab, where you’ll find exhibits, demonstrations and samples of fresh-baked treats.

Circus World Museum, Wisconsin

You wouldn’t guess that the city of Baraboo—a charming city about an hour’s drive from the state capital of Madison in south-central Wisconsin—has a rich circus history, but it was actually the headquarters and the winter home of the world-famous Ringling Brothers Circus for more than 30 years. Today, the Circus World Museum, which is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society, consists of six sites, including Ringlingville (the remaining buildings of the original Ringling Brothers Circus winter home) the Wagon Pavilion (which houses 50 restored antique circus wagons) and the Hippodrome (home to daily circus shows throughout the summer).

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Illinois

Illinois’ capital city of Springfield is home to everything Lincoln. It’s where America’s 16th president and his family lived for 17 years (before he was elected in 1860) and where he served in the Illinois state legislature, and Springfield celebrates Lincoln’s legacy at a number of historical sites throughout the city. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is one of the country’s most popular museums and documents not only Lincoln’s life but also the course of the Civil War. The collection includes astonishing items like the original handwritten copy of the Gettysburg address, as well as recreations of Lincoln’s home and the White House. The museum also features cutting-edge multimedia presentations reflecting on Lincoln’s life and legacy.

Pony Express National Museum, Missouri

“Wanted: Young, skinny wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” That’s how America’s famous Pony Express—the 1860s mail service that used horse-mounted riders to carry messages from Missouri to California and everywhere in between—advertised for its employees. Visit St. Joseph, Missouri, (just north of Kansas City on the state’s western border) to see where the Pony Express was born and learn about the riders and the trail they took through the Wild West.

Other history museums to visit: