Exploring Route 66

Illinois

The eastern end of Route 66, usually considered the beginning, was originally at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in the heart of Chicago. In 1933 the starting point was moved east to Lake Shore Drive. It's an easy spot to find. There is a "BEGIN Historic Route 66" sign at the corner.


So far, we haven't followed 66 into Chicago. The closest is the small town of Odell, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. And on the southwest side of Odell is a restored Standard Oil Gasoline Station. This gas station, one of many on this stretch of Route 66, was built in the mid '30s by Patrick O'Donnell using an old 1916 Standard Oil of Ohio design. It's known as 'house with a canopy with added bays'. The service bays were added in 1940.

Odell Standard Oil Station

Unfortunately for the owners of that beautiful red 1966 Corvette, the station no longer provides service. The wire to their starter had burned through. I had a few tools and tried to make a repair, but the wire was too corroded to provide a good connection. They ended up calling a dealer in Pontiac. But it did seem strange, working on a car that probably cost almost as much as my house.

From Odell it's about 25 miles on old Route 66, really the frontage road for I-55, to the city of Pontiac. There's an old and interesting landmark on the northern edge of town. The Log Cabin restaurant was built facing an old alignment of Route 66. When the highway was re-routed past the back of the building some years later, the owner jacked up the restaurant and turned it 180 degrees so it still faced the highway and was back in business. That old building, with some additions, is now a residence

Original Log Cabin Restaurant
The 'New' Log Cabin Restaurant

The 'New' Log Cabin Restaurant is right next door to the old, and on our visit we had a bowl of chili. They are famous for their peach pie but were out of it that day so instead we had peach cobbler for desert. If you're in the area be sure to try it.

From Pontiac it's just a short drive on old Route 66 to the town of Towanda. The residents and business owners, with help from the state, have taken an old alignment of Route 66, closed it to traffic, and created a one mile trail featuring sections for each of the eight states that were a part of Route 66. The trail starts next to a service station/convenience store near the interstate exit. We walked through the first two states, but decided the entire two miles (one out, one back) on a hot September day would be a bit much.

Towanda Trail Start
Towanda Trail Midpoint

Instead we drove down to a park near the end of the trail and worked our way backwards through California, Arizona, New Mexico and, of course, Texas. You can see in the picture the first of some replicas of the old Burma Shave signs.

This is a great little stop for those traveling the old road with the convenience store at the start and a small park near the end. The residents of Towanda are justifiably proud of their trail.

While you may be tempted to bypass Bloomington/Normal on the interstate, don't. Take Route 66 right through the city. It's easy to follow and has quite a few Mother Road landmarks, including the original Steak 'n' Shake restaurant.

If you like Steak 'n' Shakes like we do, there's one located north of Normal where U.S. 51 crosses the Interstate bypass. But the original is on the old Route 66. The building is still there although now it's a Italian restaurant. You still can see the low 'dining car' look the characterized the early ones.

First Steak 'n' Shake
Funk's Grove station

South of Bloomington/Normal Historic Route 66 is still a separate road, heavily forested on each side. We stopped at town of Funk's Grove to both stock up on their great maple sirup and to see the old town. This is the railroad station, no longer in use because the tracks are long gone.

Funk's Grove Store

The old Funk's Grove Country Store is there. Or maybe I should say the store front is there. I doubt if it's ever open for business.

Across the old Route 66 from Funk's Grove is a short stretch of an older alignment that dates back to the '30s. It was paved with Portland cement and has held up surprisingly well although today it rarely gets any traffic.

1930s Pavement

Just a mile or so south of the town of Funk's Grove you'll see this sign that looks like it's spelled wrong, but it's not. The Funk family spells it this way to differentiate their pure maple 'sirup' from those you find in most stores which has sugar added, sometime a LOT of sugar, for sweetness. They make all of theirs with sap from trees right here in Funk's Grove. It's easy to miss the driveway to the store, just a gravel road into the woods.

Funk's Maple Sirup
Funk Maple Sirup Store

At the end of the drive is the Funk Sirup store, along with their house and buildings where the maple sap is boiled down to the final sirup product. The sirup is only available during the spring and summer after the sap can be harvested. We were almost to late, but they did have a small can left. We now ration it out when we have pancakes. One pancake with Funk's Sirup and the rest with the stickier stuff from Kroger's.

What would route 66 be without truck stops? This one, the Dixie Truck Stop in McLean, Illinois was one of the first on the old highway and it continues in operation today. Being less than a quarter mile from the new interstate highway helps. Besides fuel, food and Stuckey's candy it also has a small museum of Route 66 pictures and memorabilia. After looking at the museum (free) we bought a few Stuckey items to munch on during the drive. By the way, the restaurant has great homemade pies. We stopped here again on our way home for a mid-afternoon snack.

The Dixie Truck Stop
Atlanta Clock Tower and Museum

The original road continues on south of McLean away from the Interstate Highway. Here the original road is two lane, passing through small towns that haven't changed much since they were bypassed by the interstate. One town that has changed, and for the better is Atlanta. We were impressed with the renovation of many of the businesses and by the refurbished Clock Tower and Library/Museum.

We took a walking tour of downtown Atlanta, actually only a few blocks, and stopped to rest at a small park across from the library. From here you can see the old J. H. Harwes Grain Elevator, built in the early 1900s, two blocks west of the old highway but right along side the railroad. It's been restored by the Atlantans and is open for free tours.

J. H. Harwes Grain Elevator
Hot Dog Giant

The main reason we stopped in Atlanta was the sight of this 'Hot Dog Giant', right on the main street. These statues were quite common in the '60s along Route 66. Today only two others exist on Route 66. One, as a giant astronaut, stands in front of The Launching Pad Drive-in in Willmington, IL. The other is a giant auto mechanic at Lauderbach Auto Service in Springfield.

Just down the road from Atlanta we saw this 'Smiley' water tower. It has nothing to do with Route 66 but I couldn't pass it up without taking a picture.

Have A Nice Day

At Broadwell, Illinois there was a popular restaurant named the Pig Hip. It closed when the Interstate passed Broadwell by, but the building was turned into a museum for Route 66 fans. Unfortunately a fire in 2005 burned the place to the ground. Today only a sign marks the spot.

Pig Hip Museum
Motel Pioneer

Also near Broadwell is this example of a Route 66 era motel named the Motel Pioneer. Guessing by the cars out front it's still in business. Compare this to the Rest Haven Motel on the Missouri page.

In Springfield, on the south side of town on the latest alignment of Route 66 is the Cozy Drive Inn. It's original owner, Ed Waldmire, invented the 'Cozy Dog', a hot dog on a stick, coated with corn meal batter and deep fried. The process was improved over the years, and now they cook 12 at a time in specially designed deep fryers.

We got here early one morning and were surprised to see cars in the parking lot so for some folks a Cozy Dog or two must be a good way to start the day.

The Cozy Drive-in
Glenarm Covered Bridge

South of Springfield Route 66 is, for the most part, the frontage road for the interstate. But at Glenarm there is an interesting side trip to see this old covered bridge. It's been restored and raised a few feet to protect it from flooding. But you can still see the old asphalt paving over the wood planks on the roadbed. It's now closed to all but foot traffic.

Near the small town of Waggoner a local farmer created this 'Our Lady of the Highway' shrine. It's on the frontage road of Interstate 55 with big trucks zipping by all the time. We were impressed at how well maintained.

Our Lady of the Highway
Ariston Cafe

If you can, plan to be in Litchfield around meal time and try the famous Ariston Cafe. This restaurant has been a Route 66 icon since the '20s, both at it's first location in Carlinsville on the original routing of Route 66 and later here in Litchfield when the highway was re-routed. And yes, the food lived up to it's reputation.

Just south of Litchfield in Mt. Olive is this old Shell station, Soulsby's Service. It dates back to 1926 before the highway was paved.

Soulsby Shell
Mermac Caverns Barn

Near the town of Hamel is this fine example of the old 'Meramec Caverns' barns. There were countless ones along Route 66 and many are being restored.

From here it's just a short distance to St. Louis. Route 66 has taken many alignments through the gateway city and exploring all of them is a multi-day adventure itself. So far we haven't taken this adventure, but we do have a few pictures from St. Louis on the Missouri page. Click the arrow to see them.

 
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Head for Home Missouri
Missouri