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Illinois Country Living

Driving Memory Lane
Young and young-at-heart still get kicks on Route 66

It was a mix of today and yesterday when a 1940s Cadillac and some foreign visitors on motorcycles pulled up to the restored gas station in Odell.

Dawn Schenk of Towanda has turned her garage into a Route 66 museum, right down to the floor.

Big Red perked up when visitors to Henry’s Rabbit Ranch and Route 66 Emporium stopped in from the Quad Cities. Rich Henry, right, owns the Staunton facility.

Weezy’s in Hamel was a hot spot on the Motor Tour.
A quilt made by Cathy Stevanovich, won at the 2009 Hall of Fame Banquet, was on loan to the restaurant’s new owner, Karen Wiesemoyer, pictured on the right.

Pastor Jan Proeber, left, and her sister, Linda Myers, both decked out in poodle skirts, played some cards with church folks, including a camera-shy teen.

The Deck brothers receive a plaque from Cathy Stevanovich as they are inducted into the Hall of Fame.

by Jonie Larson

There’s one common theme when you take this driving tour. Like an old newspaper, it’s black and white and read all over … no joke. For 2,448 miles stretching from Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, the same sign is posted over and over: Historic Route 66. It’s unmistakable.

While the actual sign and various strips of asphalt are the true insignias of the famous road, the stops along the way are anything but predictable. They trigger memories for some, for others – a yearning for a time they never experienced but wished they could.

On an overcast day in May, I decide to drive a small stretch of the nondescript but famous road from Towanda to Odell during Red Carpet Corridor Days. Those true to Route 66 are out in droves, coming from Chicago to California and visiting from foreign countries. Meanwhile, the hub of traffic motoring on down U.S. Route 55, is unaware of the tribute being paid to the Mother Road nearby.

Spirits are high in Towanda. While a festival with the usual fare is being offered up in the park, it is Schenk’s Garage that picks off many a motorist, including a host of curious police officers.

Everything, from a refurbished antiquated refrigerator to a tile floor laid strategically in a 66 pattern, greets visitors from around the world on this stop. Hundreds of signs grace the walls and travelers can pick up souvenirs.

Dawn Schenk tells how she got started getting her “kicks” along the route – a term coined in the lyrics sang by Nat King Cole. She was born in Dwight, Ill. and moved to her present-day location about 11 years ago. After about a year it just struck her that she was living right on Route 66. She started collecting.

It wasn’t long before her collecting turned into a museum-sized display that would no longer fit in the house. She took over the garage. And it’s there that thousands of visitors have stopped, somewhere between 300 and 400 a year, conservatively calculated, Schenk says. Oh, and don’t forget the festivities. The garage of Towanda often plays host to showers – the baby and bridal kind. In fact, on one particular Christmas Eve, a couple was married there.

“I just love showing it,” Schenk says, pointing out some of the older pieces in the collection. Perhaps a 1956 map is one of the oldest or maybe it’s the desert water bag.

While a visitor pulls Schenk aside to ask questions, her mother Dagny Patterson steps up to share her memories. It seems she, too, has had a love affair with the roadway. As a child she lived along Route 66 just south of Gardner. She said it was always so busy, giving her pause to wonder where all the traffic could be going.

After she married, she moved away to Victorville, Calif. at a place known as the Black and Orange. That strip of roadway was also located on the famous route.

“It made me feel right at home,” Patterson recalls.

Indeed, there is a sense of family that comes with stopping along Route 66.

On up the road in Lexington, there is nothing short of a party going on as some folks from a church family gather in what was once an old blacksmith shop. Church of Christ Uniting Pastor Jan Proeber and her sister, Linda Myers of Chicago, could be described as giddy, taking time out from a card game of Hand and Foot to parade around in their poodle skirts. More demure members are trying to sell baked goods. Part of the profits are slated for a mission trip to the Appalachians.

Moving away from the crowds, I take a little detour through town, winding around to a stretch of road that’s actually part of the original Route 66, coined Memory Lane. A tranquil mile or so, no longer used to get from here to there, it’s still a wonderful tree-lined piece of the past. Grass is growing in the cracks and old signs that once marked popular stops still stand as ghost-like reminders. Good ghosts.

Heading north again, Pontiac appears on the horizon. In the downtown, history abounds. In fact, the largest-known painting of Route 66 graces the wall of the building, which houses the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Historic Museum. It is there I meet Marty Blitstein.

Blitstein and Cathy Stevanovich are co-founders of the museum. They opened it in Oct. 2003. Tourists, on this day, wander around studying old pictures and reading tales about those who’ve made it into the Hall of Fame.

“It’s about the people, not the asphalt,” Blitstein says with admiration in his voice. One such story is about Ernie Edwards, 92, former owner of the Pig Hip Restaurant in Broadwell and an inductee into the Hall in 1990. It seems a man and his family were broken down along the route many years ago. With no money in his pockets, he had to depend on the kindness of strangers. It was Ernie who came to the rescue. He put them up for the night, put gas in their car the next day and got them back on the road. What did Ernie ask for in return? According to Blitstein, his response was:

“Just come back someday.”

Eighty-some plaques with accompanying pictures and stories are in showcases around the museum. On this festive day, some of those with ties to the museum wander in with the tourists.

Jim Jones, whose father had a garage in Odell, takes me to his family display. He points to a picture of himself.

“I started pumpin’ gas when I was 7 years old,” Jones says.

Blitstein appears to live and breathe the famous route. He and his grandsons even take me outback to show me the largest known painting of the Route 66 sign. The grandsons, Cyle and Ryan, are junior members of the club to the old road which Blitstein claims is the second largest tourist attraction in the state, second only to Navy Pier.

The more you talk to Blitstein, the easier it is to catch the driving tour fever. Before long I am on my way to the Log Cabin Restaurant, just a stone’s throw away from bigger city life. It’s nothing fancy, but it has a story all its own and the owner, who doubles as the cook, is well-known to many.

An old clipping on the wall tells of its beginnings. Built in 1926 of cedar telephone poles, the restaurant was a hub of activity with Route 66 running along the eastern side of the building. But eventually the road was realigned to the western side. Instead of losing business, the owner razed the restaurant and rotated it to once again face the roadway.

The restaurant continues to be a favorite place to dine. While many farmers come for breakfast, others stop for a break along the way. As I wait for owner Brad Trainor to come out of the kitchen, dining patrons are gah-gahing the old cuisine of a toasted bun and Tator Tots.

“You don’t see that anymore,” one says to the other, followed by an “Mmmm, mmm.”

The waitress gives her boss a thumbs up, too.

“His cheeseburgers are just the bomb,” she says.

One last stop on this day. I putz on up to Odell pulling in behind some international visitors at the Standard Oil Filling Station, a 1932 site restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I park alongside some British motorcyclists – all of us dwarfed in comparison to the 1940s black Cadillac beauty casting its royal shadow in the lot.

Inside the tourist hotspot is a guest book. While there, two motorcyclists from Prague sign in, as did Thomas Pawlak, a screenwriter with a script in hand with high hopes for a pilot series. If successful, he hopes Jay Leno will play in one of the episodes and claims he has been lucky enough to slip the script into Leno’s hand.

The storyline of the series is about a grandfather who leaves an inheritance along with letters buried along Route 66.

While Pawlak hopes to hitch a ride on the Route 66 fame bus, there are people all over Illinois who are famous by association.

On yet another day, by invitation of Blitstein, I join up with Route 66 enthusiasts for the June Motor Tour, to meet some of the “real” famous 66ers. While the tour crosses the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in the morning, I start my day at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch and Route 66 Emporium in Staunton.

At first approach, owner Rich Henry is too busy preparing for the Motor Tour to greet me – so Big Red does the honors. The flopped-eared host just recently got his post, but he’s comfortable with it. Did I mention he’s a rabbit?

The furry friend and others like him have been rescued by Henry. In addition, the VW Rabbit finds a home here, too. Hence the name.

When Dave and Sandy Claeys, vacationers from Davenport, Iowa stop in on the first leg of their trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Red is very welcoming and obliging. They make two purchases – some T-shirts and a travel book. Red is the first to sign the keepsake book. On the Staunton page, he nips out a reminder with his big front teeth.

The thrill of the drive has the Claeys questioning where to go next. Will they cut back over for dinner at the well-known Ariston in Litchfield or move on down through Illinois? Like a courting young couple, the married pair scurries to their automobile saying, “The only thing lacking is having a convertible” to take on their adventure.

A late afternoon storm knocks out power interrupting some area festivities, but it won’t stop the show at the Hall of Fame banquet.

Culminating a day of fun for the Motor Tour drivers, a crowd of true fans packs a banquet hall at the Best Western in Carlinville. And it is there, where those who have made Route 66 what it is today, are recognized for doing business and being state ambassadors along the famous route for years on end.

Those inducted into the Hall of Fame this year are:

  • 817 Hillsboro in Edwardsville – once known as Barns Cash Market. It is now operated by Sam Makler and Colette Andre as Springers Creek Winery.
  • Lewis (Zoo) Barrick of Lincoln, Ill. (posthumous) – who founded Barrick Transfer & Beverage Co.
  • Robert and Wyman Deck, brothers who operate a drug store/museum in Girard. It originally opened in 1884 as Deck’s Drug Store, owned by Lewis Deck.
  • Snuffy’s Grill in McCook, owned by Tony and Nancy Nikitopoulos.

A special honor – the 2010 Tom Teague Ambassador Award – went to longtime artist and ecologist Bob Waldmire (posthumous.) His brother accepted the award.

Explore Route 66 in Illinois – 400 Miles of Adventure

Created in 1926, the historic Route 66 offers many sites to see. Starting from Chicago and traveling south, sites to visit along Route 66 are:

  • Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain, The Art Institute and Willis Tower (Chicago)

  • Welcome Signs and Rainbow of Lights (Berwyn)

  • Wolf’s Head Inn (Indian Head Park)

  • Dell Rheas Chicken Basket (Willowbrook)

  • Aylesford/Castle Eden, 1/10 scale model of 1903 White House and Religious Museum (Darien)

  • White Fence Farm and Isle a La Cache (Romeoville)

  • I & M Canal, State Museum and Pioneer Settlement (Lockport)

  • Rt. 66 and Lincoln Highway are the same road (Plainfield)

  • Joliet Iron Works Historic Site, Joliet Area Historical Museum & Route 66 Experience, Rialto Square Theater, Chicagoland Speedway & Rt. 66 Raceway, Silver Cross Field, Gateway Park and Kreamy Delight (Joliet)

  • Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery (Elwood)

  • National Tallgrass Prairie (Midewin)

  • Polly, Jolly and Johnny Statue, Launching Pad Drive In, antique shops and Eagle Hotel (Wilmington)

  • Polk-a-Dot Drive In (Braidwood)

  • K-Mine Park, Community Center and trails (Godley)

  • Mazonia Fish & Wildlife Area (Braceville)

  • Riviera and Rt. 66 Streetcar Diner Restoration (Gardner)

  • Amber – Becker Gas Station, Bank of Dwight built in 1855, First National Bank designed by Frank Llyod Wright in 1905, Dwight Railroad Depot, The Country Mansion & Dwight Windmill and Fox Center (Dwight)

  • Standard Oil Filling Station and the home of Julia Child’s grandfather (Odell)

  • Meramec Caverns Advertising Barn (Cayuga)

  • Log Cabin Inn, Route 4 bridge, three swinging bridges, Historic 1875 County Court House and The Jones House (Pontiac)

  • Historic Matthew T. Scott Home and Chenoa Pharmacy (Chenoa)

  • Memory Lane, Patten Cabin, Scrogin Cemetery, Mural and G.A.R. Memorial (Lexington)

  • Rt. 66 Trail (Towanda)

  • Old Coutrhouse Museum, Beer Nut factory, David Davis Mansion and Miller Park & Zoo (Bloomington)

  • Funk Prairie Home & Gem – Mineral Museum (Shirley)

  • 1845 Church & Cemetery and Funk’s Grove Pure Maple Sirup Grove and Store (Funk’s Grove)

  • Interstate 55 rest area with Rt. 66 memorabilia (Funk’s Grove Rest Area)

  • Dixie Plaza (McLean)

  • Bunyon Giant, 1908 Clock Tower, Library & Museum, J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum and murals on downtown buildings (Atlanta)

  • Postville Coutrhouse Museum, Logan County Courthouse, Phone booth on roof of City Hall, Ghost Bridge on Old Rt. 66 alignment, only town named for Lincoln before his death (Lincoln)

  • Pig Hip Restaurant Museum (Broadwell)

  • Elkhart Cemetery (Elkhart)

  • Home of the Williamsville Museum (Williamsville)

  • Rt. 66 Rest Area and Old alignment of Rt. 66 ends at the Sangamon River (Sherman)

  • Illinois State Fair Grounds, Bill Shea Historic Rt. 66 Museum, Illinois State Capital and Museums, Lincoln’s Home and Tomb, Cozy Dog Drive-In, Rt. 66 under Lake Springfield and Lincoln Memorial Garden (Springfield)

  • Sugar Creek Covered Bridge (Glenarm)

  • Abe Lincoln Statue & wagon (Divernon)

  • Our Lady of the Highway Shrine (Waggoner)

  • Skyview Drive-In Theater and Ariston Restaurant (Litchfield)

  • Mother Jones Monument in Union Miner’s Cemetery and Russell Soulsby Shell Station (Mt. Olive)

  • Country Classic Cars and Henry’s Rabbit Ranch & Rt. 66 Emporium (Staunton)

  • Meramec Caverns Advertising Barn, St. Paul Lutheran Church and I-55 Rest Area (Hamel)

  • City Library & Park and Mustang Corral (Edwardsville)

  • Yanda Log Cabin & Covered Bridge (Glen Carbon)

  • Luna Café and Debbie’s Route 66 Frozen Custard (Mitchell)

  • 1937 – 1960 Rt. 66 Mississippi River crossing (Chain of Rocks Bridge)

  • Indian burial mounds (Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)

Now looping back, north towards Springfield:

  • Decamp Junction and Staunton Post Office (Staunton)

  • Coliseum Ballroom (Benld)

  • Best Western Complex, Anderson Mansion, Sears-Roebuck mail order houses, Million Dollar Court House, 1869 County Jail and Carlinville Square with gazebo (Carlinville)

  • Famous turkey tracks (Nilwood)

  • Whirls-a-Whit Drive-In (Girard)

  • World War I Memorial (Virden)

  • North of town is a segment on the old brick road (Auburn)

  • Snake Bridge and Sugar Creek Covered Bridge (Chatham)

  • Governors Mansion, Old State Capital, Launderbach Giant, Knight’s Action Park, Lincoln Home National Historic Site and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield)

© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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