Back in the day, summer vacations were defined by where the main drag could take us. For decades, the main drag that weaved across Missouri and into the west was Route 66, the Mother Road, whose 90-year history and roadside destinations still are well worth the visit.
But this summer, resist heading west and head east instead, or rather northeast to Chicago where the iconic route got its start in 1926. Route 66 first followed the rail corridor between Chicago and St. Louis, a route that eventually became State Route 4. Already a paved, two-lane road, it was a natural, cost effective starting point and also provided the only north to south route before passing through the gateway to the west in St. Louis.
True Route 66 enthusiasts will want to begin their trip where it all began – on East Jackson Boulevard near Lakeshore Drive. Granted, driving in downtown Chicago can be challenging, but you can always chalk it up as part of the thrill before heading south to Berwyn, a Chi-town suburb.
The path less taken
Officially Route 66 no longer exists. It was decommissioned in 1985, a minor technicality for retro travelers who still seek out and drive the route’s original alignments. These alignments were the result of the demand for improved roadbeds and speedier routes, achieved by bypassing rural towns. Today, the route’s original concrete and brick roadbeds are kin to the Oregon Trail’s wagon wheel ruts, preserved and still drivable, located along Highway 4 between Chatham and Auburn. The 1,277-foot link of the original 1921 Portland cement road is found west of Alpha Road between Hwy. 4 and Curran Road. A treat for hard-cord route riders is the 1.4-mile surviving 1931 brick roadway, now called the Brick Road – just a few miles north of Auburn and west of Snell and Curran roads. Curran Road serves as a connector, which curves south reconnecting with Hwy. 4.
“We like to drive as much of the old highway as you can, riding the pavement off the beaten highway,” said Route 66 enthusiasts Helen and John Burke. The Burkes have traveled the old route in both directions to and from Chicago and on through to the southwest. “There’s so much to see in these little [Illinois] towns … that we took one alignment up and another home.”
Historic brown markers designate the route’s Illinois alignments along with their dates of service – 1926-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1977. Good to know if you decide to go retro this summer. Once a brown sign is spotted, you’ll want to keep a sharp lookout for another sign indicating the nearby locations of Illinois’ Route 66 Wayside Exhibits. These interpretive displays begin in Berwyn and feature stories of classic eateries, gas stations and attractions. Or you can keep it simple and download a free Route 66 tourist map at www.illinoisroute66.org. Good maps will outline cutoffs and exits to the drivable early alignments as well as highlight small town main streets, roadside curiosities and kitsch.
Berwyn has managed to retain its mid-century main street charm along its historic stretch of Route 66, aka Ogden Avenue. Here is where you’ll encounter the first of many Route 66 museums. On display is an eclectic mix of roadway history, including aerial photos, vintage signs and related business memorabilia. Another nearby museum, which is just off the route but worth a side trip, is the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in Oak Park. Take the optional self-guided walking tour of the surrounding historic district, which contains the world’s largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. It’s located just 10 minutes outside of Berwyn in Oak Park, Illinois.
Berwyn’s population swells the last weekend in August for its Route 66 Car Show, one of the route’s largest, attracting 500-plus vintage and custom cars, trucks and motorcycles. No matter when you plan to arrive you can satisfy your appetite at Berwyn’s White Castle, the oldest operating White Castle found along the entire route. It’s been serving up its signature sliders at the same site since 1939.
Take your pick
Illinois has divided a portion of the route into two segments, the Illinois Red Carpet Corridor [www.il66redcarpetcorridor.org], a 90-mile stretch beginning at Joliet ending just short of Bloomington, and the Blue Carpet Corridor [www.bluecarpetcorridor.org], which picks up after Springfield. The Blue Corridor zigzags through 19 rural villages and towns before ending at Collinsville, home of the Brooks Catsup Bottle.
Counted among the Red Carpet Corridor’s stop-and-see attractions is Wilmington, Illinois. Stop for a selfie with its most famous resident, the Gemini Giant, one of the route’s remaining roadside Muffler Men.
Muffler Men were oversized fiberglass statues designed to entice drivers to pull off the road and shop, gas-up or dine. Gemini Man served as the sidewalk maître d’ for the late Launching Pad Drive-in, where he remains, welcoming all who motor by.
The Burkes urged Route 66 travelers not to miss the oversized fiberglass roadside art that dots Route 66.
“There’s a big rooster at Del Rhea’s Chicken Basket just outside Chicago, ” Helen said. Del Rhea’s located at I-55 and Route 83 in Willowbrook and an excellent example where chicken has been fried and feed to travelers since 1946. “We had to stop and eat there.”
Roadside rubbernecking takes on new meaning when tooling through Pontiac, home of Murals on Main Street. Over 20 drive-by murals depict local commercial and cultural history – the largest of which can be found on the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum.
“Anyone who knows the route knows Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire. You have to stop and go through his school bus,” Helen said.
The Waldmire experience, an exhibit on the second floor of the Pontiac museum complex, spotlights the artist who preserved Route 66 history in art. A school bus he retrofitted into a hippie land yacht complete with a second floor and back porch is parked outside. The bus served as the artist’s home and studio for 15 years.
The museum complex boasts four museums in one building, including the popular Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum, a mecca for Trans-Am and Firebird fans. Currently on special display is one of America’s classic muscle cars, the 1970 GTO Judge.
“And the military museum [the Livingston County War Museum] is not to be missed,” said John.
Twenty miles south of Pontiac is Lexington, which offers another one-mile blast from the past – Memory Lane, a restored section of Route 66 that interprets 1940 era billboards and Burma shave signs. It’s opened year-round as a walk-through exhibit site, but drivable only during Route 66 festival weekends, or when the gate has been left opened.
The Burkes advise that the next stop worth pulling off the road for is Funk’s Grove.
“I passed the sign for Funk’s Grove driving to Wisconsin to visit my sister for 40 years and never got off the road. It’s along the old route so we stopped and found its wonderful maple syrup,” said Helen, describing her discovery of Illinois’ finest sugar bush maple syrup operation, located at 5257 Historic 66 in Shirley, Illinois. “When we past that way we’ll make the stop again.”
Along the Blue Carpet Corridor the Burkes advise a stop in Carlinville, with its historic town square, Million Dollar Courthouse and mail-order homes.
The county seat of Macoupin County, Carlinville boasts one of the largest courthouses in the country. Located at 200 E. First South St., it began as a $50,000 project in 1870, but its cost ballooned to more than $1 million, making it what city officials say is the “state’s most magnificent courthouse.
As glorious as the courthouse is, Helen gets most excited about the 12-block area that boasts 152 homes ordered from the 1920 Sears & Roebuck Home Catalog. Its considered a must see for early 20th century architecture and history buffs.
Don’t miss the Souslby Service Station, located at 710 West First St. in Mount Olive and billed as one of the oldest filling stations still standing on Route 66. While the pumps no longer operate, The Station, as it is affectionately known, has been restored to its post World War II glory and serves as a historical and educational attraction.
Seven miles south of Mount Olive is one of the route’s newer and funkier attractions – Henry’s Rabbit Ranch. A combination visitor’s center and gift emporium housed in a replica vintage gas station, Henry’s Rabbit Ranch is renown for an abundance of rabbits – the furry, flop-eared cuties and the Volkswagen variety. Gaining inspiration from The Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Henry half-buried a half-dozen VW rabbits nose down in the ground with their tails sticking upward. Scattered on the grounds also are miscellaneous roadway artifacts along with dozens of live rabbits hopping about.
Located in Glenarm is the Sugar Creek Covered Bridge, a 60-foot span listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of five remaining 19th century covered bridges in Illinois. Originally constructed around 1880, the bridge was rehabilitated by the Illinois Department of Transportation in 1965. To get there, exit at Glenarm (Exit 83) and take the frontage road up through and past Glenarm; then follow the signs, but take note: the last turn – a right turn – isn’t marked.
Time to get off the road for a while? Turn into Litchfield’s 1950 Sky View Drive-in, which began operations on July 8, 1949 and continues to delight audiences today.
Current movies are shown in the traditional “drive-in double feature” format. In keeping with tradition, the drive-in boasts a playground for the kids to enjoy before the show, but in a nod to modern times, window speakers are no longer used. Movies are broadcast in FM and can be enjoyed on your car’s radio or a portable one [hint: bring fresh batteries]. If you catch the double feature and sleepover in Litchfield, you can grab breakfast at Jubelt’s Bakery & Restaurant, 303 North Old Route 66, a mainstay along Route 66 since 1922.
Find a little Lincoln
If history is your passion, try a different take on Route 66 beginning with Cruisin’ for Lincoln on Route 66 Visitors Center located in Bloomington/Normal. Housed in the McLean County Museum of History on Bloomington’s Main Street, Cruisin’ for Lincoln is a free exhibit allowing 21st century tourists to compare their travels with those of the country’s 16th president. As a bonus, the suggested road trip emphasizes retro dining and lodging along the route.
The “Finding Lincoln” road trip culminates in Springfield, Lincoln’s hometown where his law offices, home and neighborhood street are preserved. To see everything from Abe to Z, Springfield tourism [www.visitspringfieldillinois.com] recommends taking advantage of area presidential packages offered at local hotels or motor inns, which combine lodging and attraction tickets. Or plan your own itinerary and discover destinations often overlooked such as the Lincoln Bedroom and gardens at the Illinois Executive Mansion. Mansion tours are free and available mornings and afternoons on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Saturday mornings.
While the Lincoln sites are Springfield’s star attractions, there are still plenty of roadside kitsch and Route 66 landmarks to visit. No matter if the State Fair is running or not, visit the 30-foot tall statue of a clean-shaven, rail-splitting Abe standing guard at the fairgrounds main gate – another selfie op. It’s worth the drive by – as is The Railsplitter, the World Largest Covered Wagon with Abe in the driver’s seat, of course, located a few miles outside Springfield in neighboring Lincoln, Illinois.
Springfield also is the place to taste the best of Route 66.
Cozy Dog, located at 2935 S. Sixth Street, is the obligatory destination for hot dog aficionados. After all, it’s the birthplace of the corn dog, the original hotdog on a stick. Not hungry for dogs, then head to the Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop, 118 N. Pasfield Street, and order up a loose meat sandwich. Springfield’s Maid-Rite, a favorite on the route since it opened in 1921, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered the world’s first drive-up window restaurant.
Another Springfield specialty that Route riders crave is The Horseshoe, an open-face sandwich layered with ham or burgers, French Fries and cheese-sauce. The Horseshoe, created in 1928 at the old Leland Hotel, appears on countless area truck-stops menus.
Home sweet home
Back in St. Louis, no Route 66 road trip would be complete without a visit to some local landmarks, including the Missouri History Museum, which opens a special exhibit, “Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis” on June 25. The exhibit provides a unique look at the Mother Road through local history – taking visitors beyond custard stands and tourist traps to discover forgotten facts and artifacts ranging from gas pumps to a vintage Airstream trailer.
After a visit to the History Museum, head out again, this time stopping at the local sites along the Mother Road including Ted Drewes Frozen Custard and Route 66 State Park. Located off Interstate 44 near Eureka, the park’s visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. through November. Housed in the former Bridgehead Inn, a 1935 roadhouse that sat on the original Route 66, the visitor center showcases the road’s history while the park offers biking and hiking trails, picnic areas and playgrounds.
“We had so much fun on our three-day trip,” Helen said. “Just get off the highway and explore. Do as little or as much as you want.”
It’s a sure-fire way to get your kicks on Route 66.