Route 66 road show

 

Listen to this article

For 90 years, motorists have been getting their kicks on Route 66, stretching over 2,400 miles from outside the Art Institute of Chicago to L.A. — the Santa Monica Pier, to be exact.

Known as the Mother Road and perhaps the most famous highway in the world, Route 66 attracts motorists including from overseas who want to travel at a slower pace — and see things and talk to folks along the way.

"The journey is part of what's interesting — it's not simply getting somewhere," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway.

In Illinois, Route 66 Illinois stretches 420 miles to the Mississippi River. It travels through many Illinois towns and cities unlike farther West, where the towns are few and far between.

Death Valley, anyone?

Though the huge celebrations of the highway that opened in 1926 will come during 10 years from now, the next few months have much to offer, particularly this and next month — prime driving time.

Here are attractions and events along 66 in Illinois, compliments of Kelly.

1 Among the key stops is Pontiac, 70 miles north of Champaign. "It's now viewed by Route 66 as the best stop anywhere," Kelly said.

Among the attractions: 23 murals about Route 66 by the Walldogs, plus the International Walldog Mural and Sign Art Museum, and several other museums, among them the Illinois Route 66 Museum and Hall of Fame, the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum and Resource Center, and Museum of the Gilding Arts.

Kelly recommended checking out in the Pontiac Museum Complex the permanent exhibit on Bob Waldmire, "vagabond artist of 66," particularly his VW van and rolling art studio, an adapted school bus. It's a religious experience for many, he said.

Upcoming events: the GTOAA Regional Cruise and Show, Saturday and next Sunday; the 24th annual Threshermen's Bluegrass Festival, Sept. 22- 24, Threshermen's Park.

2 Springfieldis where the "whole fabric of Abraham Lincoln and Route 66 gets tied together," Kelly said, with the most famous attraction Lincoln's Tomb in the Oak Ridge Cemetery. Kelly always encourages visitors to rub the nose on the "beautiful bronze bust" of the 16th president.

Also: the popular Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; Mahan's Gas Station, believed to have been the oldest gas station on 66, moved to the 1100 block of East Sangamon Avenue; and the iconic Cozy Dog Drive In, famous for its hot dog on a stick.

"66 is notorious for food that tastes great and is not that healthy," Kelly said. "The Cozy Dog has Illinois State Fair-quality fries. Chinese travel writers rendezvoused at Cozy Dog for breakfast and everybody loved it."

Big event: the 15th annual International Mother Road Festival, Sept. 23-25, downtown Springfield.

"The cruise is pretty cool; there were probably 2,300 cars in the cruise last year," Kelly said. "It's really cool to watch the parade — you get kind of a full immersion."

3 Another great stop is Atlanta; Kelly said the town of 1,700 has a "very cool, compact, couple square blocks of 66" with shops; the Palms Grill Caf, built in the '30s and featuring fare from the Mother Road's golden age; and the 19-foot-tall Paul Bunyon statue.

Bunyon, as it's spelled in Atlanta, holds a giant hot dog and was just painted, Kelly said, and is one of four giants along Historic Route 66.

Big event: You just missed the Atlanta Fall Festival, which ended Saturday. Put it on your 2017 calendar.

4 Lincoln, the only town named for Lincoln when he was alive, boasts "some cool 66 assets" including: the 24-foot-tall Railsplitter Covered Wagon, with a 12-foot-tall Lincoln in the driver's seat, billed as the world's largest covered wagon and named by Reader's Digest as a top U.S. attraction; The Mill on 66, a restaurant that will be restored by the spring and the site for the Motorcycle Show from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; and the Lincoln Watermelon Monument, commemorating the day in 1853 when Lincoln christened his namesake community by slicing open a melon and pouring its juice onto the ground.

Big event: 46th annual Abraham Lincoln National Railsplitting Festival, Saturday and next Sunday, at the Historic Route 66 sites Postville Courthouse State Historic Site, Postville Park and The Mill. The new Lincoln Film Festival will be Oct. 14-16.

5 Another great stop, Girard, has Doc's Soda Fountain, originally a pharmacy built in the 1880s with the fountain added in the 1950s.

"It's a third-generation pharmacy, with a pharmacy museum and a great soda fountain for burgers and the best chocolate milkshakes in the Western hemisphere," Kelly said. "I would buy you your next chocolate milkshake if you don't like Doc's."

Big event: The 11th annual Pumpkin Festival, Oct. 8, Pumpkin Park, with human and mechanical pumpkin launching from 1 to 4 p.m. Smashing pumpkins!

6 Litchfieldhas plenty of camping and parks and the Ariston Cafe, the oldest cafe on Route 66 and on the National Registry of Historic Places; the Sky View Drive-In, the last operating original drive-in on the Mother Road in Illinois; and Jubelt's Bakery and Cafe, open since 1922.

Big events: Fifth annual West Fork Encampment, Oct. 1-2, a historical re-enactment of life in the 1800s; Stewart's Deep Rock Car Cruise, Oct. 1, Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center; Route 66 Half Marathon, Nov. 13, Historic Route 66; Litchfield Pickers Market, an open air market, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today and Oct. 9, downtown.

7 Gillespie, a former coal mining town, just opened the Illinois Coal Museum.

8 In Staunton, one of Kelly's favorite stops, is Henry's Rabbit Ranch, a garden of Volkswagen Rabbits upended and planted in the ground, plus real rabbits rescued by Henry, plus a rabbit graveyard.

9 In Hamel, Weezy's Bar & Grill, an original 1930s Route 66 roadhouse and a great place for a cheeseburger and cold beer, Kelly said.

10 In Carlinville, the Macoupin County seat, people are restoring the 1867 Gothic Revival County Jail, designed by E.E. Meyers, who also designed the county's controversial "One Million Dollar" courthouse.

Not yet open for tours, the jail was built with cannonballs in the walls between the layers of stone to make it impossible to escape.

Events: Macoupin County Historical Society Fall Festival, Saturday and next Sunday, and Christmas Show, Dec. 2-4; Broom Orchard Apple Festival, Sept. 24-25, and Pumpkin Festival, Oct. 8-9; Carlinville Christmas Market, Dec. 2-3.

More information

For a full list of events along U.S. Route 66 in Illinois, visit illinoisroute66.org or call 217-525-9308.