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Photo courtesy of Gary Geiss
In a photo from the new book, “Route 66 in Illinois,” a dinosaur, the symbol of Sinclair, stands watch on opening day in 1963 at Harold and Bob Stainbrook’s station at Baltimore and Main streets in Wilmington.
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The cover of “Route 66 in Illinois,” to release June 9 from Arcadia Publishing.
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The authors of “Route 66 in Illinois,” Joe Sonderman and Cheryl Eichar Jett, at the 2013 Route 66 Festival in Edwardsville.
The Madison County Historical Society will host the first program and book-signing event celebrating a new book, “Route 66 in Illinois.”
Co-authors Joe Sonderman and Cheryl Eichar Jett will be on hand for a slide show presentation and stories about America’s Mother Road from its Chicago roots to the Mississippi River. The free program will be at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 8, at the Madison County Archival Library at 715 N. Main St. in Edwardsville.
Sonderman and Jett are experienced authors and historians who have 19 books to their credit, many on Route 66. The past year was a labor of love as they explored the back roads of Route 66 in Illinois. They collected thousands of photographs along the way, selecting about 200 of their favorites for this new book.
Sonderman said finishing the book was bittersweet because it marked the end of a year of memorable trips to research and hunt for photos.
“I didn’t think too much about Illinois at first,” he said. “To me, most of the route outside of Springfield seemed to be Interstate 55 frontage road surrounded by prairie. Boy, was I wrong! Cheryl and I discovered some of the best-kept secrets of the road, including the town of Atlanta, with the wonderful Palms Grill Café, “Tall Paul” the roadside giant, and one of the coolest streetscapes on 66.”
Co-author Jett had similar feelings about finishing the project. She has lived in several Illinois Route 66 towns including Springfield, Litchfield and now Edwardsville.
“For me the joy of rediscovering so much along the route with Joe merged with my memories of the Bloomington Steak ‘n Shake, the Litchfield Sky View Drive-In and the Chicago Skyline,” Jett said. “As a child I became addicted to following highway maps sitting in the back seat on family trips.”
Jett and Sonderman have similar views on history, preservation and the excitement of re-discovery that made their partnership work well. Both understand the lure of Route 66 today as it brings travelers from around the world looking for a piece of Americana.
Jett spoke about the magical combination of family memories and the romance of the road.
“Neon signs, late-night cokes and burgers at a diner counter with someone special, or simply ticking off the miles all take on extra significance. Back then our travels on the two-lane seemed to bring us closer in touch with everything,” she said.
Route 66 roadies understand travelers need to leave the interstate to find the history and beauty of Route 66 in Illinois. There are numerous alignments of the road in Illinois and the authors recommend the pre-1950 alignments which include Edwardsville.
“I had dismissed Edwardsville as part of the St. Louis suburban clutter, but found it had a lot to offer,” Sonderman said. “Then there is Pontiac, a beautiful town (and) home to the fantastic Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Museum. We rediscovered the pleasures of dining at the Ariston in Litchfield, for my money the best on the route, and also became big fans of Weezy’s in Hamel and the Chicken Basket in Willowbrook.”
In the pages of “Route 66 in Illinois” the reader will find stories and photographs from America’s Mother Road. The public is invited to come meet the authors and hear even more stories about the Illinois portion of Route 66. Kicking off a week of Route 66 events in Edwardsville, the program is on Sunday, June 8, at 2 p.m. at the Madison County Historical Society’s Archival Library at 715 N. Main St. in Edwardsville. There is no charge to attend the program and the public is invited.
For information, call MCHS at (618) 656-7569.
A short journey on the Mother Road in Illinois
Jett and Sonderman encourage those interested in history to spend a few weekends this summer traveling the route in Illinois. What follows is a brief description of the route.
During the early years, Route 66 began in Chicago, at Michigan and Jackson boulevards. The terminus was moved to Lake Shore Drive at the entrance to Grant Park in 1937. In 1953, Jackson became one-way eastbound, so westbound 66 traffic was moved to Adams Street. The route passes through the skyscraper canyon and past Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant, a Chicago institution since 1923.They still hand out Milk Duds candies to the ladies.
Route 66 passes through Cicero, once the headquarters of ruthless gangster Al Capone. After passing through seemingly endless suburbs, the traveler arrives in Joliet, where the Joliet Historical Museum and the haunting original Illinois State Penitentiary are not to be missed. Neither author was familiar with the tragic story of the Elwood Ordnance Plant, which is covered in the book. It was also the first time they had explored the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which turned Chicago into a major transportation hub.
After the route crosses the Kankakee River it moves onto the great prairie in the heart of Illinois. Before the national highway system was laid out in 1926, this route was the old Pontiac Trail and then State Highway Number 4. The interstate is boring along this stretch, but 66 parallels the railroad into the heart of each communities. There’s Gardner, with its historic two-cell jail and the restored street car diner. A Sinclair “Dino the Dinosaur” figure and Gary Geiss at G and D Tire greet travelers in Wilmington. Dwight offers a bank building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the restored Ambler-Becker station serves as a welcome center.
After touring the Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac, circle the beautiful Livingston County Courthouse and take time to admire the murals and the sign museum created by the “Walldogs.” The Pontiac automobile museum is nearby. Chenoa is another community often overlooked. But its Main Street is beautiful and Dan Boian’s Chenoa Pharmacy continues a tradition established in 1888. Route 66 in Illinois contains historic photos of all these locations.
Normal is the birthplace of the Steak n’ Shake Restaurant chain, with the motto “In Sight it must be Right,” and neighboring Bloomington is “The Hub of the Corn Belt.” South of Bloomington, make sure to pick up some maple “sirup” at Funk’s Grove. The Dixie Travel Plaza at McLean was once the Dixie Trucker’s Home, which opened in 1928. Atlanta is next and then Lincoln, home to the partly restored Mill Restaurant.
Many travelers don’t take the time to travel the short route through Williamsville. Route 66 in Illinois shows they are missing a lovely main street and a museum located in converted boxcars. A pretty remnant of the original Route 4 is worth seeking out in nearby Sherman.
Of course, Springfield was Abraham Lincoln’s home and is his final resting place. The life of the 16th president is celebrated at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Springfield is also the home of the Cozy Dog, a hot dog on a stick dipped in batter and fried. The Waldmire family has been serving them up since 1946.
South of Springfield, travelers can leave the 1950s Route 66 for a journey back in time on Illinois Route 4. The original 1926 alignment of Route 66 between Springfield and Staunton offers precious old sections paved in brick after Route 66 was relocated, including one winding through the cornfields near Auburn. The brick roadway leads to Becky’s Barn, a unique stop offering food, collectibles and conversation. The towns of Virden and Mount Olive offer a chance to reflect on the struggles of those who labored in the coal mines that built these towns.
In addition to the legendary Ariston Café, Litchfield offers one of the newest attractions on the route, the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center. In Staunton, Rich Henry’s Rabbit Ranch offers real bunnies as well as Volkswagen Rabbits. The Volkswagens are stuck in the ground, imitating the Cadillac Ranch in Texas. Rich Henry, a walking encyclopedia on Route 66 history, has the kind of fun, kitschy place everyone enjoys.
The Our Lady of the Road shrine keeps watch over travelers near Raymond as the 1950s-era highway slices straight as an arrow towards St. Louis, reminding us that Route 66 could be a dangerous highway. There are few vintage motels on this segment of Route 66, as the trip between Chicago and St. Louis could easily be made in one day. A four-lane highway was constructed around most of the communities after World War Two. Much of the old four-lane survives.
At Edwardsville, there are several businesses that were regular stops along old Route 66, including the newly restored Hi-Way Tavern that will hold its grand re-opening on June 13-14. From Edwardsville the recommended route turns west through Mitchell. This is the home of the Luna Café. In Al Capone’s heyday, legend says the Luna offered illicit gambling and ladies of the evening. It was said that when the cherry on the recently restored neon sign was lit, the girls were “in.” The last stop in Illinois is the old Chain of Rocks Bridge with its famous bend at the center. The bridge today offers beautiful views of the river only to pedestrians and cyclists.