For the third segment of our Route 66 tour, we chose to go against the grain and head east from St. Louis to Chicago. (Typically Route 66 is traveled east to west.) There were two schools of thought among us about direction, but I was outvoted by both my husband and son who were taking the trip with me. Onward!
We live just two blocks off of one of the paths for historic Route 66 through St. Louis, so it was easy to leave and be immediately on our trip. I have passed this sign for an Auto upholstery place many times and admired it, but today we stopped and took some photos. Love that swing-y arrow!
In the future, I plan to do a post about Route 66 through St. Louis, but this photo couldn't wait.
There are several interesting signs in this part of Illinois, still in the metropolitan St. Louis area. The Luna Cafe is still in operation and was once a favorite haunt of Al Capone. And that cherry in the cocktail has a sordid story. The Greenway Motel, like many old Route 66 hotels, is now an SRO apartment. The neon is gone from the sign, but it is otherwise well-maintained.
One of the best signs in this area is the Bel-Air Drive-in sign. (Of course, from one side it is the "Bel-Ai" and from the other, it's a "rive-in".)
Update: Holy schnikes! Just after we saw this, the sign was dismantled and sold to a local collector. I am so sad, but glad that I had a chance to see it. All of this stuff is disappearing so quickly...
Just north of Hamel (or south of Springfield), Route 66 branches into two major parts*, a 1926-1930 branch and a 1930-1977 branch. (*It actually branches in and out of various parts, including several 1930-1940 spurs - but I'm not going to go into QUITE that much detail.)
On our original trip, we drove the 1930-1977 section, but we went back a few weeks later to drive the 1920-1930 section, so I've divided the photos into those two sections. There are great things to see on both halves, so don't skip one or the other!
Route 66: 1930-1977
Our first stop on this section of the road was an old, restored Shell gas station in Mount Olive, Illinois. The gas station was built in 1926 by Henry Soulsby and was run by the family until 1996. It was restored by the Soulsby Preservation Society with the help of a grant from the National Park Service. It is now listed on the National Register of historic places.
You can still see patches of even older road if you keep your eyes open.
Our next stop was Litchfield, Illinois where we had lunch at Jubelt's cafe. DO NOT MISS THE BAKERY. We had the most amazing cinnamon rolls and rhubarb pie I think I have ever had.
Across from Jubelt's is the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center. It's a great stop and when they mean Welcome Center, they mean it! Very welcoming, very nice and they had some great exhibits to peruse. The museum sits on the property that was once the Vic Suhling gas station and they've kept and restored the original neon sign as part of the museum.
The Ariston Cafe is a landmark on Route 66. Open since 1924, it's now on the National Register of Historic Places and a favorite Route 66 haunt.
When we came through the first time they were not open for lunch (thus our jaunt to Jubelt's) but on our second trip, we had a wonderful dinner here. The Ariston is under new ownership, but it remains a dining landmark for Livingston.
Past Litchfield and randomly in the middle of nowhere (Raymond, Illinois) is the Magnuson Grand Hotel and Conference Center. I am not sure who they cater to since their location is...odd, but they do have an old paddle boat replica in the lake adjoining the property. This is one of those weird/delightful finds you encounter traveling Route 66.
Route 66: 1926-1930
On our second jaunt up Route 66, we first stopped at the Pink Elephant Antique Mall in Livingston, Illinois. Peruse outside and enjoy all of the Giants (and Giantesses) along with the namesake Pink Elephant and (my personal favorite) one of the few remaining Futuro homes in the United States. (Before I get into the Futuro, let me just say - don't waste your time on the "antiques". There are much better antique malls out there - I think this one just survives based on their outside attractions.)
Why and where these people got their hands on a Futuro, I do not know. It was owned by someone else originally and located north of the Springfield Airport, and the current owner plans to refurbish the home as a seating option for their ice cream parlor, but I think it would be better off in the hands of someone who would love it for its history, not just its ability to make people stop and shop. (Just my personal opinion.)
Henry's Rabbit Ranch was another kitschy stop we missed the first time around. Henry rescues domesticated rabbits and keeps them here on his ranch, surrounded by his obsession with rabbits of the Volkswagon variety. One oddity on the ranch is Henry's devotion to giving his rabbits (the real ones) a proper burial with headstone and epitaph which surround the building. Visit the (live) bunnies in the yard and climb the giant bunny statue.
Several of the towns on this part of Route 66 have fabulous downtowns with squares and activity galore. The day we were in Carlinville, Illinois, they were having a car show and party in the town square. Here's a link to a video about Carlinville's history.
We also saw this great dinosaur of welded steel parts in Carlinville. We had a roaring good time doing a little shopping and poking around the town.
In Auburn, Illinois is 1.4 miles of brick-paved Route 66. The road was laid by hand over a concrete roadbed and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a short and quaint drive, so don't miss it!
Last on our second trip to Route 66 in Illinois, we had to double-back to the 1930-1977 road and hit the Ariston Cafe in Litchfield. Since they were not open on our first trip through town, we came back to have a lovely dinner.
On to Springfield! Our first stop was the Cozy Dog Drive-In. Cozy Dog is cozy because it is wrapped in a home-made batter and in fact, is the home of the first corn-dog-on-a-stick. The dogs were invented by Ed and Virginia Waldmire and originally called the "Crusty Cur" and sold at the USO. It was Virginia who suggested the name change and designed the embracing hot dog logo. Ed and Virginia are parents to artist Bob Waldmire who we'll learn more about in a minute.
Sonrise Donuts (the "O" is not a typo) opened in 1947 and was the first donut joint in Springfield where you could sit down and grab a cup of coffee with your donut. It closed in 1988 and has been many different iterations since, but is currently a taqueria. The fabulous sign still remains.
Slightly off Route 66 through Springfield is the Downtown Business District full of buildings from all different eras of architecture. The business district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One downtown structure is a mid-century beauty. For anyone who doesn't think concrete can be delicate, get a look at this amazing detail from the First United Methodist Church (now defunct) in downtown Springfield. This land is slated for redevelopment, but it's been in limbo for a long time and is now considered unsafe. (What an unfortunate end for such a beautiful building. It was designed in 1967 by Nelson & Fernandez.)
The capitol building is beautiful, as most State capitol buildings are and is at the head of the central business district.
On the way back to Route 66 we passed by this decidedly 1960's Christian Science Reading Room. I thought it was a simple but beautiful piece of architecture, so had to snap a photo.
We also passed by this large mural on the side of a building in downtown Springfield, a nod to the impact Frank Lloyd Wright has had on the heritage of Illinois.
Just north of Springfield is the Pioneer Motel. Based on their crazy website* and their incredibly mixed reviews, I don't know if I would stay here. (*Crazy. I mean, what IS that and why? Okay, it's a Money Cowrie. But I stand by the "why" question.)
They do have a great, picturesque, original radio tower/neon sign, just ripe for some photography.
The Mill, also in Lincoln, Illinois, was built in 1929 and had its heyday on Route 66 and closed in 1996 where it sat shutterd and decaying until 2006. By 2008, the Mill was on the Illinois Most Endangered List. The Mill has been in constant fundraising mode and has been able to raise enough money to get the building turned into a museum and gift shop. They are now in their final push to finish renovations to The Mill. Check out their crowdfunding plan here.
P.S. There is a mechanical leg that sticks through the ceiling of the museum - one of the original publicity stunts from the 1980's to attract visitors. Where else can you see a mechanical leg coming through the ceiling? Check it out at 2:47 on the video.
Our next stop was Atlanta, Illinois.
First, there was another muffler man to ogle. (Just what is a Muffler Man? Check out this link on Roadside America.) The Atlanta Muffler Man is holding a hot dog in place of a muffler. He's known as Paul Bunyon since he came from the Bunyon Hot Dog stand in Cicero, Illinois. The original Paul Bunyan muffler man was made for the Paul Bunyan Cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona, and many more identical men were made from the same mold and can be found around the country.
This library is beautiful and unique in its octagonal shape. In front of the library is the town clock tower. The clock is known as an "eight-day clock" because it needs to be wound by hand every eight days. There are a group of citizens, the "Keepers of the Clock" who still wind it every eight days. It has a 1,200-pound brass bell which chimes on the hour. Lucky for us, we were there right in time to hear it chime.
In Normal, Illinois, we came across another restored gas station. Sprague's Super Service. Built in 1931, it had automotive repair, gas pumps and a restaurant on the first floor with an apartment for Mr. Sprague and his family as well as an apartment for the gas station attendant on the second floor. The building was purchased in 2006 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Today it's been restored and houses a gift shop for Route 66 tourists.
Welcome to Pontiac, Illinois. PREPARE TO SPEND SOME TIME HERE. There are a lot of things to see and do.
Our first stop was the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum. This place is FREE and chock full of great stuff and nice, nice people. There is so much to see here: memorabilia, gas pumps, cars, murals and complete rooms set up from the heyday of the road.
The Wishing Well Motel was located in La Grange, Illinois in the Chicago suburbs. The hotel was built in 1941 and served as a quiet overnight stop for notable guests playing various Chicago venues such as the bandleader Guy Lombardo. The motel was torn down in 2007, but the well and sign were donated by the motel owner's family and reerected in 2009.
Earlier in Springfield, I mentioned Ed and Virginia Waldmire, owners of the Cozy Dog. Their son, Bob Waldmire has become synonymous with the exploration of the Mother Road. His artwork of Route 66 can be found all along the route. Bob passed away from cancer in 2009, but his legacy lives on all along the road and is celebrated at the museum in Pontiac.
The first thing you might see around the rear of the museum is Bob's custom made Land Yacht. Built on an old school bus, this RV home was renovated by Bob with help from his friends. It contains sleeping quarters, a kitchen and bath all as one might expect in an RV, but it also has a library, sun deck, and sauna. Bob drove the renovated bus to Hackberry, Arizona where it became his winter home. Check out this website for more photos including inside. (I think I was too stunned to take photos while I was there!)
Inside the museum is Bob's VW bus. Like many of the characters we met along Route 66, Bob was also an inspiration for one of the characters in Pixar's Cars. (I bet you can guess which one). When Pixar asked Bob to be part of the film, the only thing Bob asked in return was for $0.02 for every toy sold (that he was going to donate to ethical organizations he admired). He said that it was his way of, "...getting his two-cents in". Pixar balked and named the character Fillmore, instead.
This lovely little, restored gas station in Odell, Illinois was next on our journey. It served as some sort of auto-related business until the 1970's when it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. With the help of a number of grants, the Village of Odell has restored the station as a welcome center along Route 66.
Parked next to the station was this great little travel trailer with vintage glitter laminate countertops!
In Dwight, Illinois, there was another restored gas station, Ambler's Texaco Gas Station. It has a similar story to the station in Odell with matching grants to restore the station and place it on the National Register of Historic Places.
Don't go pulling any funny stuff in Gardner, Illinois, or they might lock you up in their two-celled jail! Built in 1906, this jail was still in use into the 1950's. Barebone accommodations here! A fun stop for a photo op where I snapped a keeper of my son and my husband each in their own cell, sporting hang-dog looks. They were guilty! (P.S. Don't pull anything funny in Gardner regardless - because they do have a real, modern jail for criminals.)
Gardner was once home to the Riviera Diner, but the diner itself burned down in 2010 and was not rebuilt. However, behind the Riviera Diner was an old streetcar from Kankakee, Illinois that was converted into a diner from 1932, and was apparently also targeted by the arsonist who burned down the Riviera. The streetcar was spared from a fiery doom and has been restored as another Route 66 stop. The diner is only for looks, though, no food here.
Another Muffler Man in Wilmington, Illinois and this one has gone to space! Known as the Gemini Giant, the original owners of The Launching Pad restaurant purchased the giant at a restaurant trade show in 1965 and he's graced the parking lot ever since.
The restaurant closed in 2011 but has recently been purchased by a local couple planning to restore the Launching Pad to a downhome diner/restaurant. Right now you can stop in and see the Giant and also speak with Holly, one of the new owners while perusing their Gemini Giant merchandise. You betcha that I bought a cool, purple t-shirt to support these folks, and you can, too.
As we started to get closer to Chicago, we began seeing a lot of interesting buildings and signs along the Route.
The sign for the Cindy Lyn Motel and Suites in Cicero, Illinois looks like it's seen better days, but the online reviews of the motel are pretty positive and the motel has been owned and run by the same family since it opened in 1960.
As we drove closer to downtown, the skyline presented itself along Route 66 and made for a glorious photo op.
Route 66 follows Jackson through downtown to Lakeshore Drive and passes right in front of the Sears Tower* where you can get a beautiful view through your sunroof. (*Yes, yes, don't hound me. I know it's the "Willis" Tower now, but it will forever and always be the Sears Tower to me. Don't get me started on National Airport in D.C.) Don't forget to enjoy the Skydeck and dare yourself to walk out onto the glass-boxed Ledge! (Hey, even the Skydeck doesn't call it the Willis Tower!)
We finally made it to the start (end?) of the road, where Jackson meets Lakeshore Drive in downtown Chicago. (I'm sure you're glad we've reached the end, too, after reading all of this!)
Thank you so much for reading to the bitter end! I know it was a long article, but thanks for hanging in there, and we hope that you enjoyed this installment of our Route 66 road trip. Until next time!