Motoring Out from Chicago on Rt 66
America’s Historic Byway Through the ‘Burbs & Beyond
Back in the day, summer vacations were defined by where the main drag could take us. For decades that main drag was Route 66, linking small towns and big cities from Chicago to San Bernardino, California. And while the song first made famous by Nat King Cole promotes experiencing the entire route, more often than not, most everyone gets their kicks closer to their home state. When you motor west out of Chicago, chances are you’ll zoom right through plenty of Route 66 roadside attractions that are more than worth a pit stop.
Get your motor runnin’... Highway-bound at Berwyn
Die-hard Route 66 enthusiasts will want to begin their trip where it all began — on East Jackson Boulevard near Lake Shore Drive, but I recommend starting just west of the city limits on Odgen Avenue in Berwyn. Known as the Old Plank Road in the late 19th century, Ogden Avenue’s broad width made it perfect for business to boom along the route. It soon became dotted with gas stations, early drive-in eateries and over a dozen auto dealerships.
Berwyn — a town with Swedish roots founded in 1908 which came into its own in the 1920s to 1940s — has managed to retain its mid-century Main Street charm. The town claims the area’s best assortment of Chicago-style two-story bungalows, many beautifully preserved, with stained glass windows, intricate brick patterns and clay tile roofs. A few Victorian painted ladies dot the streetscape, too.
Of course, Berwyn is also home to one of the best car shows not only in Chicagoland but along the entire Mother Road. Classic cars, those that would have been sold in those dealerships that once lined Ogden Avenue, are now the stars of the Berwyn Route 66 Car Show, held the last Saturday in August. Berwyn’s car show is the area’s biggest, with 500 plus vintage and custom cars, trucks and motorcycles. Highlights of the free event include live music, automobile flame-throwing and a dragsters “cacklefest,” so named for the crackle and fire of mighty engines at full power. All are unforgettable experiences for car enthusiasts.
While there is no longer a Route 66 museum in town, you’ll find a gift shop stocked with memorabilia within Superior Awards at 7005 Ogden Ave. As you drive west, you’ll encounter many such roadside museums presenting an eclectic mix of roadway history, aerial photos, vintage signs and souvenirs. In addition to free maps and travel tips, a stop here will give you a taste of the adventure that lies ahead.
Speaking of tastes, that’s half the fun of a Route 66 trip. Before leaving town, you may want to 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.
Not hungry for Castles? Try Paisan’s Pizzeria & Bar or Michael Anthony’s Pizzeria & Bar, both providing culture along with cuisine. Paisan’s décor is complete with custom motorbikes and a dragster, while Michael Anthony’s boasts fresh-made family recipes — and an assortment of “legal” gambling machines. Another neighborhood staple is Cigars & Stripes BBQ Lounge. The Route 66 mural on the west side of the building is painted by owner Ronnie Lottz.
About a 45 minute drive to the southwest, look for the big rooster at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, located at I-55 and Route 83 in Willowbrook. Del Rhea’s has been frying chicken since 1946. It’s considered an American culinary roadside icon and travelers still flock to it. Thanks to the National Park Service and the Illinois Scenic Byway Association, this venerable roadside diner recently won a matching funds grant to restore it’s 71-year-old landmark sign.
Back on the route follow the historic brown markers designating the route’s Illinois alignments along with their service dates — 1926-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1977. 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 and roadside curiosities.
Head out on the highway... Riding the Red Carpet to Joliet
Illinois divided a portion of the route into two segments, the Illinois Red Carpet Corridor (www.il66redcarpetcorridor.org), a 90-mile stretch beginning at Joliet and ending just short of Bloomington, and the Blue Carpet Corridor (www.bluecarpetcorridor.org), which picks up after Springfield.
Ride the red carpet along Joliet’s stretch of Route 66, stopping at the Route 66 Park and Rich & Creamy, an ice cream shop with a difference. The retro parlor is hard to miss, with life–sized figures of Jake and Elwood Blues (aka The Blues Brothers) dancing on the roof. The shop marks the official start of the route made famous in the movie. Here’s where it pays to get out of the car and walk the park’s path to the overlook and take in the prison view. Colorful signage in all directions invites you to “Get Locked Up… At the Old Joliet Prison,” as a huge steel and barbed wire entry sign beckons you into a park unlike any other.
More than 25,000 visitors come through Joliet on Route 66 tours in a given year. The Joliet Area Historical Museum will quickly get you acquainted with the cars, culture and people of the roadway through interactive exhibits and touch screen displays. The museum hosts fun events throughout the year, including a rooftop summer concert series.
Joliet is also the Midwest’s capital for NASCAR and dragway racing. Held in mid August on the dirt track at the Chicagoland Speedway and Route 66 Raceway, the Ultimate Good Ole Days Event is the D’Arcy Route 66 Classic. The event salutes vintage Route 66 hot rod culture, including drag racing and a classic car cruise-in. A recent addition to this annual event is Vintage Faire, an outdoor market filled with kitschy collectables.
Go-karts more your speed? Check out Trails Raceway at Haunted Trails Amusement Park. It’s Halloween all year round, with rides like the Monster Hop or the Bone Shaker. And if you decide to stay overnight in Joliet, be sure to get tickets for a show at the Rialto Square Theatre, deservedly dubbed the Jewel of Joliet. The 1926 Vaudeville-style theatre hosts shows and concerts year round. Yet to come in 2017 are The Simon & Garfunkel Story and concerts from Yanni and The Road Crew — billed as America’s Route 66 Band.
In and around Joliet there are all the diner and drive-through options you could wish, including Chicken-N-Spice (251 N Chicago St.), Joliet Route 66 Diner (22 W. Clinton), Merichka’s, famed for family-run East European eats since 1933 (604 Theodore St.), or Home Cut Donuts, serving up fresh made coffee and donuts daily for the past 50 years (815 W. Jefferson St.).
Lookin’ for adventure... Onwards to Pontiac
The stretch of Route 66 southwest of Joliet is pure nostalgia. Continuing down the Red Carpet Corridor, you’ll find stop-and-see attractions like the Gemini Giant. It’s a must stop for a roadside selfie with Wilmington’s most famous resident, one of the route’s remaining roadside Muffler Men. These oversized fiberglass statues were 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. Take time to drive through Wilmington’s quaint downtown, shopping at mom-and-pop stores like Two Hounds Antiques (202 N Water St.) for true-vintage memorabilia.
After 25 miles of open road, you’ll hit the breaks again in Braidwood for the Polk-a-Dot Drive-In, a photo-op with full-size, full-action figures of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Betty Boop. A couple of miles further along is Gardner’s tiny Two-Cell Jail, welcoming unhappy guests from 1906 until the late 1950s. Gardner used to be the site of The Riviera Roadhouse, an Al Capone hang out, that sadly burned to the ground in 2010. A 1930s street car that once served as a diner stands on the spot, recently restored as a Route 66 landmark.
Next up is Ambler’s Texaco Gas Station in Dwight. For 66 years, this was the longest continuously operating gas station on Route 66. Closed in 1999, it has now been meticulously restored and operates as a Visitors’ Center — one more opportunity for photos, memorabilia and kitsch.
Roadside rubbernecking takes on new meaning when tooling through Pontiac, home of the Murals on Main Street. More than 20 drive-by murals depict local commercial and cultural history — the largest can be found on the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum. They were painted by the Walldogs, a group of highly skilled artists who travel small-town America and came to Pontiac in 2009. They painted for food and overnight stays.
According to route warriors and historians, anyone who travels the route will learn of Route 66 folk artist Bob Waldmire and his school bus. The Bob Waldmire Experience is a featured exhibit at Pontiac’s museum complex. Parked outside is the school bus he retrofitted into a hippie land yacht, complete with a second floor and back porch. The bus served as the artist’s home and studio for 15 years. Pontiac’s museum complex boasts four museums in one building, including the popular Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum, a mecca for Trans-Am and Firebird fans.
Twenty miles south of Pontiac is Lexington, another one-mile blast from the past with a restored section interpreting 1940 era billboards and Burma shave signs. It’s open year-round as a walk-through exhibit site, but drivable only during Route 66 festival weekends, or when the gate has been left opened.
And whatever comes our way
Find a little Lincoln
]If history is your passion, try a different take on Route 66 beginning with the 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, the city’s center for tourism, Visit Springfield, 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 diversions and Route 66 landmarks to visit. Look for Big Abe, located on the Illinois State fairgrounds. No matter if the State Fair is running, visit the 30-ft-tall statue of a clean-shaven, rail-splitting Abe anyway. He stands guard at the fairgrounds main gate -— another selfie op. It’s worth the drive by — as is The Railsplitter Covered Wagon (touted as the world’s largest), with Abe in the driver’s seat, of course. It’s located a few miles outside Springfield in neighboring Lincoln, Illinois.
Springfield is the place foodies traveling the route stop — making a pilgrimage to Cozy Dog, the birthplace of the corn dog, the original hotdog on a stick, located at 2935 S. Sixth Street. It’s an obligatory destination for hot dog aficionados. 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 has been a route favorite since it opened in 1921, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered the world’s first drive-up window restaurant.
Another Springfield specialty Route 66 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-stop menus.
A little extra history
Officially, Route 66 no longer exists. It was an inadvertent victim of demand for improved roadbeds and speedier routes, which was achieved in part by bypassing rural towns. It was decommissioned in 1985 — a mere technicality for retro travelers who still seek out the route’s original roadways.
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 Hwy 4 between Chatham and Auburn, south of Springfield.
The 1,277-ft link of the original 1921 Portland cement road is found west of Alpha Road between Hwy 4 and Curran Road. A treat for hard-core route riders is the 1.4-mile surviving 1931 brick roadway — the Brick Road -— just a few miles north of Auburn and west of Snell and Curran. Curran Road serves as a connector, which curves south reconnecting with Hwy 4. Just another Illinois site where you can get your kicks on Route 66.
Suzanne Corbett is a national award-winning writer based in St. Louis. She is a contributor to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, West NewsMagazine and AAA Midwest Traveler. Suzanne is also a successful cookbook writer, radio host and media producer — as well as a frequent driver of the stretch of Route 66 between St. Louis and Chicago.Edit Module