Exploring Illinois Route 66

June 25 through July 1, 2017

 

Route 66, the mere mention of the name brings thoughts of freedom, thoughts of traveling the open road in a classic car, thoughts of a time long gone by.  It is arguably the most famous road in the world.  Visitors come from all different countries to travel Rt.66.  It is on the Blue List from travel site Lonely Planet, as one of the top 10 road trips in the world, and the only one in the U.S.  But why is Rt.66 so well known?  It was not the first road across the United States.  That distinction goes to the Lincoln Highway.  Rt.66 was officially designated on November 11, 1926, thirteen years after the Lincoln Highway.  However, Rt.66 was the longest continuous hard road.  It was made by connecting the main streets from one town to another.  In contrast, the other roads were not fully paved yet.  They were often muddy trails in which cars would sometimes be unable to pass without getting stuck in the mud with their narrow tires.  But there is so much more to the history of Rt.66 than that.

 

In the early days of Rt.66, America really was the land of opportunity.  As travelers began heading westward, there arose the need for fuel and service stations.  Weary travelers would rest in campgrounds.  Before long though, those campgrounds started to gain cabins.  As more time progressed, people saw opportunity to add more rooms by connecting cabins together in order to add another room between them, and suddenly, the motel was born.  Of course these travelers also needed food to eat, so the simple mom and pop diners started to appear.  The opportunities to service all of these travelers was endless.  It’s been said that no matter what you’re looking for, if you stay on Rt.66 long enough, you’ll find it.

 

During the 1930’s, the Great Plains suffered a severe drought.  This drought, in combination with the farming practices of the time created dust storms that blackened the sky and carried dust as far as the east coast.  Year after year, the drought never ended and the crops never grew.  These horrendous conditions forces tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms and look to the west for better opportunities.  Rt.66 provided these families with the path out of the drought and black skies.  This great migration was documented in the famous book, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

 

After World War II, the American economy was booming and GI’s returning home were eager to purchase cars and travel the country.  Again, Rt.66 provided many families with a good road and friendly service.  Business along road was never better, but it was all about to change.

 

During WWII, General Dwight Eisenhower saw firsthand the military advantages of the European highways.  They allowed military troops and equipment to be moved long distances very quickly.  As President, Eisenhower passed legislation for the creation of highways.  By that time, Rt.66 had almost too much traffic.  Therefore, Rt.66 was a victim of its own success.  Highways were built which bypassed the towns and Rt.66 itself.  As the highways opened, the travelers disappeared from the towns. 

 

But the problem didn’t stop there.  In the mid 1960’s, the Highway Beautification Act compounded the problem by removing billboards from along the highway.  Many of these billboards provided advertisements for the small towns along Rt.66.  With the billboards gone, the travelers remained on the highways, killing off many of the small towns.  Today, many of these towns are still nothing more than a ghost town with abandoned buildings and homes.  On June 27, 1985, Rt.66 was officially decommissioned.

 

Fortunately today, as a result of the renewed interest in Rt.66, many of the small towns are beginning to thrive again.  They still provide travelers with good home cooking, a clean place to rest, and a friendly smile.  Walk into any diner and you’ll hear stories from the locals that will make you feel like you’re one of them yourself.  You’ll soon understand what American hospitality is all about.

 

Many people have driven Rt.66, but few have actually had the opportunity to experience Rt.66.  In June of 2017, the West of the Lake Region is going to take you on an experience of a lifetime.  Within a short time, you will realize that Rt.66 is not simply a road, not simply a journey, but rather living history.  We are going to spend seven days traveling Illinois Rt.66 from Chicago to St. Louis.  While the total distance is only around 300 miles, the sights and experiences will feel like you’ve traveled 3 times as far.  Join us, and learn what true Americana is all about!

 

Our starting location will be Joliet, Illinois, one of the largest cities along Illinois Rt.66.  Joliet is conveniently located at the intersection of I80 and I55.  The host hotel, and our home base for the first couple days of the tour, will be the Clarion Hotel.

 

For those who come in early, join us on Saturday, June 24th, for a tour kick off cruise at one of the local establishments and show off that Cadillac style.

 

On Sunday, we’ll begin our tour by heading into Chicago, where Rt.66 begins.  In order to avoid the congestion of the Chicago streets, we’ll start the tour by busing everyone into the city.   Our first stop will be at Chicago Vintage Motor Carriage where you’ll see one of the finest car collections in all of Chicago.  The collection includes a Tucker, the 1958 Eldorado Biarritz Raindrop Motorama car, the 1954 Mercury XM-800 concept car, 1931 Duesenberg Model J convertible sedan, 1934 Ford Brewster Town Car, 1954 Kaiser Darrin, 1941 Lincoln Raymond Loewy Continental V12, and many, many others.  From there, we’ll take you to see the start of Rt.66, then up Lake Shore Drive before heading over to Navy Pier.  Navy Pier first opened in 1916 as a 3,300ft long pier into Lake Michigan that now features more than 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants, family attractions, and exhibits.  Leaving Navy Pier, our tour then takes everyone back down Rt.66 with stops at the Hofmann Tower and Castle Eden, two famous attractions along Rt.66, both over 100 years old.  The next stop will be at the Beller Museum where over 60 cars are on display with an emphasis on the Ford Model A.  Dinner that evening will be at the famous White Fence Farm, known for their family style chicken dinners.

 

On Monday, we’ll see the sites and attractions of Joliet, once known as the Steel City.  The first stop will be at the magnificent Rialto Square Theater, which opened in 1926.  It has been named one of the 10 most beautiful theaters in the world.  Its architecture will leave you breathless with styling from the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine cultures.  The theater tour will include an organ concert featuring the world renowned Barton Grande pipe organ.  The next stop will be at the Joliet Area Historical Museum to see displays highlighting both Rt.66 and the rich history of Joliet.  Lunch will be served at the museum featuring food from a Joliet icon, Babes Jumbo Hot Dogs.  We’ll then see the historic Joliet Correctional Center, the 159 year old limestone prison made famous in the movie “The Blues Brothers.”  In its day, the prison was a self-contained community producing its own food and power.  Dinner that evening will be at the Rt.66 landmark, Del Rhea’s Chicken Basket.  In winter, during the heyday of Rt.66, Del Rhea’s would attract travelers by having ice skaters perform on the roof of the restaurant.  While they don’t have skaters anymore, they still serve some of the best chicken around.  Instead, for your entertainment, we have arranged for John Weiss, the Illinois Rt.66 expert, to speak to the group about the history of Rt.66 and his efforts to help preserve that history for future generations.

 

Tuesday starts the drive out of Joliet, taking Rt.66 south on our way to Pontiac.  Along the way, you’ll see the first of several muffler giants that tower above Rt.66.  Many of these statues have been changed to hold objects other than a muffler in order to attract travelers to their business.  This first one is called the Gemini Giant.  Its muffler was replaced with a rocket to attract travelers to the Launching Pad restaurant.  Other sights along the trip include an old two cell jail as well as a couple vintage service stations that have been beautifully restored.  These service stations will make wonderful photo opportunities for you and your vintage Cadillac. Before midday, we’ll arrive in the historic town of Pontiac where you’ll be free to enjoy lunch and the many attractions at your own pace.  We’ll be able to park around the town square where the mayor will come out to greet us.  Pontiac has several museums including the Illinois Rt.66 Hall of Fame & Museum, the Livingston County War Museum, and the Pontiac Oakland Museum & Research Center.  These are all fantastic museums with interesting displays.  If you get tired, hop the trolley bus for a tour around town where you’ll spot many of the numerous murals that have been painted on the sides of some of the buildings.  At night, enjoy the food and entertainment at the dinner play theater.

 

The experience continues on Wednesday with more sights that will take you back to a time of vintage Americana.  You’ll tour the home of David Davis who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Abraham Lincoln.  You’ll also tour the McClean County Museum which is located inside the old courthouse in downtown Bloomington.  Our lunch stop in Atlanta will be one of the most authentic stops of the trip.  Close your eyes for a moment, and you’ll pass through the small town of Atlanta without ever knowing it.  Stop in Atlanta, and you’ll experience small town hospitality in a way few people have.  We’ll have lunch at the Palms Café, known for good old fashion home style cooking where the waitresses still dress in the typical 1940’s attire while the tin ceiling, bar stools, and vintage cash resister complete the step back in time.  Make sure you save room for a slice of their delicious homemade pie!  While we’re in Atlanta, step back into 1983 in America’s Playable Arcade Museum which is filled with the original arcade machines such as Pac Man, Centipede, Asteroids, and many more of the classics.  They also have the old vintage pinball machines.  While this is a museum, as the name implies, all the machines are functional and ready to be played with the drop of a quarter.  If arcade games are not your style, walk across the street and wander through the antique store to find that treasure you’ve been looking for.  Atlanta is also the sighting of the second muffler giant you’re going to see, however this one is holding a hotdog.  Once we wave goodbye to Atlanta we’ll be headed to Springfield.  Along the way we’ll see the world’s largest covered wagon and a couple more of the quaint towns that line Rt.66.  Wednesday night, join us for a cookout at Knight’s Action Park.  While there, play a round of miniature golf, ride the lazy river, or hit the driving range before the sun goes down.  For those that are looking for the full vintage experience, stay for the movie at the drive-in theater before shutting down for the night.

 

Thursday is the day of decision.  Over the years, Rt.66 was changed as more paved sections were completed.  As such, you can take the old alignment of Rt.66 through Carlinville, or take the new alignment which includes numerous stops in Springfield itself.  For those taking the old alignment, you’ll see the Sugar Creek covered bridge, one of the few covered bridges in Illinois.  You’ll also stop to see the turkey tracks that were permanently captured in the concrete of Rt.66 back in the 1920’s.  Part of the drive will also include a section of the original Rt.66 brick road.  It’s a true road trip back in time.  In Virden, explore the old pharmacy displays of Doc’s Soda Fountain before we head into Carlinville.  Carlinville is another one of the small towns of Rt.66 with the classic town square and many sights to see.  After lunch on your own, you’ll tour the “million dollar” courthouse.  In 1867, the courthouse was planned at a cost of $50,000.  Instead, by 1870, the courthouse was opened as the second largest in the country at a cost of $1.3 million!   Across the street, you’ll see another old prison that is sure to set anyone straight.  While in Carlinville you’ll also tour homes at two different ends of the cost spectrum.  The Anderson mansion was built by a local banker in 1883 and features Italianate and Queen Anne style architecture.  Conversely, kit homes from Sears Roebuck & Company were used to solve the need for rapid housing development after coalmines were opened in 1917.  Carlinville has the largest collection of Sears kit homes in the U.S.

For those deciding to take the new alignment of Rt.66, the morning will focus on Abraham Lincoln.  The first stop will be Abraham Lincoln’s tomb and the nearby War Memorial.  You’ll then see one of Springfield’s best attractions, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library.  This museum has a wonderful display that traces Lincoln’s history from his birth to his assassination.  There is also an amazing holographic presentation that will have you questioning what is real and what isn’t.  Across the street is the old Illinois Capital building.  Experience lunch at the Cozy Dog, the inventor of the corndog.  After lunch, you’ll tour the Dana-Thomas house, designed by the world renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  The home also includes one of the largest collections of furniture that was also designed by the famous architect.  Leaving Springfield, you’ll see where Rt.66 was flooded over by the man-made Lake Springfield.  You’ll also see the Sugar Creek covered bridge.  The new alignment also has a number of antique stores that are filled with treasures just waiting to be found.

 

Thursday night, both alignment groups meet back up in Litchfield.  Dinner will be at the famous Ariston Café.  The Ariston is believed to be the oldest restaurant on all of Rt.66.  It has terrific art deco styling inside from its origins back in 1935.  It has been voted the best restaurant on all of Rt.66!  The food is fantastic, however, due to limited space, we can only accommodate 150 people for dinner, so sign up early.   For those who are prepared to stay up late again, Litchfield also has a drive-in theater, the Skyview Drive-In.

 

On Friday, we begin our journey out of Illinois and into St. Louis, but not before visiting the Litchfield Museum & Rt.66 Welcome Center.  You’ll then stop at another nicely restored service station which makes another great photo opportunity.  Our next stop will be one of the most unique stops along Rt.66, Henry’s Rabbit Ranch.  As the name implies, Henry’s Rabbit Ranch is all about rabbits, that includes both the fuzzy kind as well as the Volkswagon kind.  Cadillac Ranch is nicely reproduced using the VW Rabbit.  Inside, Henry will share his hospitality and stories with everyone that listens.  We’ll then head over to the Pink Elephant Antiques where you’ll see the fourth muffler giant of the trip along with several other unique oddities out front.  Look around for treasures, but don’t get lost, we have a reservation to cross a bridge.  Another of the more unique experiences of this trip will be crossing the mighty Mississippi River.  The Chain of Rocks Bridge was the bypass for Rt.66 over the river starting in the late 1930’s.  Today it is normally only open to pedestrian traffic.  However, we have been given permission to drive across the bridge!  What also makes it significant is that the Chain of Rocks Bridge is one of the few bridges that includes a bend in the middle of the bridge.  Because of its age, the bridge is rather narrow to today’s standard.  This will be an experience you won’t forget.

 

Once we cross into St. Louis, we are going to see some impressive car collections, of which, some are not open to the public.  The first collection is owned by CLC member Doug Kirberg.  Doug’s collection began with a 1954 Cadillac he purchased at a Barrett Jackson auction.  He then purchased a 1932 Cadillac and a 1930 LaSalle.  Doug’s collection includes several Cadillacs and LaSalles along with a 1913 American LaFrance, 1911Buick, 1913 Crane Simplex, Diamond T Pick up & Tractor, Fords (T & A), Locomobile, Packard, Pierce Arrow and Peerless.  Many of the cars are from the Horseless Carriage & Classic Era and are restored. Doug & his wife Joanne like to tour in their early 1911 Buick & the 1913 Peerless Cars.  The Auto collection is displayed in a restored Banana Warehouse built in the 40’s or 50’s.  Doug’s collection also includes Auto-related Collectibles and Displays. You won’t want to miss this unique collection.  Lunch will be served at the collection.  Later that evening, we’ll have dinner while we tour Hyman Ltd. Classic Cars.  The collection includes over 100 cars with most of them available for purchase.  Maybe you’ll drive back home in a different car than you left with.  That night, you’ll be in for another treat as we head over to another Rt.66 icon, Ted Drews Frozen Custard.  Ted Drews is famous for their creamy treats.  They are open year round and will have customers lined up even during winter snowstorms.

Our tour concludes on Saturday, but not before another day of great cars, delicious food, and Rt.66 attractions.  We begin with another private car collection, Hunter Classics, Ltd., owned by CLC Life member Stephen F. Brauer. This is a large collection that includes many Cadillacs along with Bentleys, Duesenbergs, Fords, Lincolns, Packards, and Rolls- Royces. There are also some others we might see. Many of the collection are from the Classic Era and are of Pebble Beach quality. The auto collection is displayed in several buildings that include other antiques, auto-related collectibles, as well as collections & displays.  You won’t want to miss this unique collection.  Lunch will be served while we’re at Hunter Classics.  Our tour then takes us over to the Missouri History Museum where they have a special Rt.66 display that highlights more of the Rt.66 history through Missouri.  Later that afternoon, it’s off to the Museum of Transportation.  This museum includes all forms of transportation with cars, trains, planes, and boats, but the cars and trains are a special focus.  You’ll see some very rare cars and trains that you likely won’t see anywhere else.  Unfortunately, like all great CLC events, this tour will come to an end, however, not before we all get together one last time for a delicious banquet dinner at the hotel.  This will be a god time to relax and reflect on all the great experiences of the week.

 

From June 25th to July 1st, the 2017 CLC Driving Tour is going to take you on the Rt.66 experience of a lifetime.  No other Rt.66 tour will cover as much detail as this tour.  The sights, history, and hospitality of Rt.66 will be something you’ll remember for a long time.  Your stomach will also remember the great food with many stops of authentic American home cooking.  Get your Cadillac or LaSalle ready and make your plans to join us now as this tour is expected to be one of the best attended tours.  The Mother Road will be looking forward to seeing you in 2017!