Everyone knows that Route 66 is considered to be America’s most iconic highway. Known as the Mother Road, there have been songs written about it, TV shows that feature it and hundreds of groups that travel it. To me, US Route 66 is really just another US Highway, but, due to its pop culture status, it is a fun highway to travel.
As 2022 kicked in, it was my hope that I could use my 66th birthday on October 4 as an excuse to travel the entire length from Chicago to Santa Monica. As is typically the case, things don’t always go as planned and/or hoped for, and such was the case for my 2022 Route 66 plan. Nevertheless, I did get to travel a large section in July as a result of an emergency trip to Tucson, Arizona. On my return, we traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico and, from there, traveled Route 66 all the way to Central Missouri. It was a fun trip with my daughter and my brother, who we brought back to Kentucky. Despite that trip, I still made plans to hit the Start Sign in downtown Chicago and then drive the route as far as East St. Louis, Illinois, just across the river from Missouri and the Gateway Arch. The Illinois section of Route 66 is 301 miles long.
Before getting started, I want to give a big shout out to my friends at RoadsideAmerica.com. If you don’t have their amazing app, please go to your App Store and download.
On October 4 I left home and made my way to Chicago via Olney, Casey and Effingham, Illinois on the way up and Chester, Illinois on the way back. I’ll cover those places in a different post, but will note that Olney is the home of White Squirrels, Casey is known as the “Little Town with Many Big Things,” and Effingham, well… I have always wanted to go there to get my Effingham Sandwich. Chester is the home of the creator of cartoon character Popeye. These made for fun additions to the road trip.
But, back to Route 66. I actually arrived in Chicago on October 2, not quite my birthday, but we had plans in Lexington for my birthday so I had to hit Route 66 a couple of days early. And it was probably a better day to hit Chicago since it was a Sunday and there was a lot less traffic. After spending the night in Casey, I meandered my way to Chicago, and hit my first Route 66 places before getting to Chicago. My first stop was in Wilmington, Illinois, home of the famed “Gemini Gant” Muffler Man. It was early, so nothing was open, but I was able to get some fun photos.
From Wilmington it was on to the large and beautiful city of Chicago. I had not been to Chicago for many years, so I was pretty excited to get there. Before hitting downtown, I wanted to get a nice skyline shot of this huge city. It was a beautiful day and, being a Sunday, the roads weren’t too crowded. I made my way north along Lake Shore Drive to Northerly Island Park, home of the famous Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. From the Planetarium parking lot I was able to get a nice shot of the Chicago Skyline.
From Adler it was on to the corner of S. Michigan and E. Adams St. in downtown Chicago to Historic Route 66 begin sign. I had made sure to look at the street view maps on Google so I could see where it was. Fortunately, there were a couple of open Loading Zone parking spaces right next to the sign so I was able to hop out for a couple of shots. Probably wouldn’t have had that luck on a weekday.
It would have been nice if the sign wasn’t all covered in stickers from previous visitors. At least, you can see important parts of the sign!!
A little history should be included herein for a better perspective on this highway. The numerical designation 66 was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route on April 30, 1926. US 66 was first signed into law in 1927 as one of the original U.S. Highways, although it was not completely paved until 1938. In the early years there was controversy among states that wanted it to be called US 60 and/or US 62. In fact, in the 1926 Missouri map, the highway was actually labeled as US 60. But the efforts for a Route 66 continued as the brainchild of entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri. In 197 Avery and Woodruff established the U.S. Highway 66 Association to promote the complete paving of the highway from end to end. By 1938, US 66 became the first U.S. Highway to be completely paved due to the efforts of the U.S. Highway 66 Association. By the 1950s, US 66 became the main highway for vacationers headed to Los Angeles. Passing by the Painted Desert and close to the Grand Canyon, among other places, tourist driving became important and led to all sorts of roadside attractions being developed along the way, including teepee-shaped motels, frozen custard stands, Indian curio shops, fun local motels with lots of neon and, of course, fast food joints, etc. And, in my opinion, that is why there remains such an interest in the highway.
As a side story, my first road trip experience came in 1966 when my family moved from Albuquerque to Dallas. We took Route 66 from Albuquerque to Amarillo before heading south to Dallas. We stayed in some old motels, stopped at the Texaco stations, the kind we see as historic sites on the highway today. In the 1980s we lived in Flagstaff, Arizona where I went to college and worked as a tour guide. I traversed Arizona sections of Route 66 often. By 2013 I had traveled most sections of the highway, only missing the downtown sections of Chicago and the section west of Barstow to Santa Monica’s “End of the Trail.” So I still have about 138 miles left to have actually driven the entire length.
Traveling Route 66 through Chicago is actually not too bad. There is plenty of signage along the way to point you in the right direction. But, there were a few confusing places, but, if you do your research in advance and know the landmarks, restaurants, motels, towns, etc., you can always get back on the route. Basically, the route takes you west on W. Adams Street to W. Ogden Ave. From there it heads southwest and for a number of miles, W. Ogden is the old Route 66 drive.
My first stop along Route 66 in the Chicago area was the famed Henry’s Drive-In on W. Ogden Ave. in Cicero. Its only about 10 miles away, but takes about 20 minutes to drive there, even on a slow traffic day. The sign is a famously iconic neon sign with a giant hot dog. The Drive-In has been around since 1950 and is noted for their hot dogs that are served with the french fries as one of the toppings.
After enjoying a couple of these tasty (and kinda messy) hot dogs, I was back on W. Ogden to continue my trek along Illinois Route 66. I passed through the towns of Berwyn and Plainfield
Plainfield is interesting because it is one of only a couple of places where Route 66 crosses the Historic Lincoln Highway, the first road across the United States (from New York City to San Francisco). Much of it has been renamed to U.S. Route 30. The highway was dedicated on October 31, 1913 and runs from Times Square in NYC to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. During its history, the Lincoln Highway went through 14 states, more than 700 cities. towns and villages and was originally 3,389 miles long. By 1924 it had been shortened to 3,142 miles. And, in Plainfield, IL it meets up with Route 66.
After a long drive from Casey to Chicago and then south, I ended up for an overnight stay in Joliet, Illinois. This is a famed Route 66 town and also famous for my favorite movie of all time – The Blues Brothers. After a nice overnight stay at the Quality Inn in Joliet, I was back on the road on October 3. First stop was the Joliet Route 66 Diner for a good breakfast. I got there shortly after 7 AM and figured it would be busy, but I was actually the only customer in there at that time. Had a nice breakfast and got a few pictures, including some vintage Blues Brothers posters. Then I drove around Joliet for all of the murals, the Route 66 history and more.
After a good breakfast I took a drive around Joliet. Lots of fun stuff here.
The Rialto Square Theatre is an impressive site. It was opened in 1926 to be designed and operated as a vaudeville movie palace. The theatre’s Neo-Baroque style is wonderful. The top of the columns rise into a dome full of intricate sculptures.
Of course, Joliet figures heavily in the Blues Brothers movie from 1980. It is my all-time favorite movie and I was happy to see some Blues Brothers love in town. The Rich & Creamy on Broadway Ice Cream Shop features the Blues Brothers on the roof next to the Joliet Kicks on 66 sign. I would have really liked to grab something to eat there, but they were closed the day I was there.
Just across the street from Rich & Creamy is Dick’s Towing Service. I can’t say much about their history, but they do have some fun Route 66 lore on their lot. It was worth a stop for me. But, be warned, park illegally in Joliet and Dick’s will come get you. I saw two cars tolled in while I was there!
Finally, at the Route 66 Food & Fuel Station is a replica the famous Bluesmobile, a 1974 Dodge Monaco. In the movie, Elwood arrives at Joliet Prison in the 1974 Dodge Monaco to pick up the newly-released Jake. When Jake asks about their previous Bluesmobile, Elwood tells him he traded it for a microphone. Elwood explains the Dodge Monaco is a decommissioned Mount Prospect police car, which he purchased at a surplus auction the previous spring. The movie actually used 13 different cars to depict the Bluesmobile.
Heading south from Joliet, I finally left the Chicago metro area and ventured into some of the smaller Illinois Route 66 towns. Next stop would be Braidwood, Illinois and its famed Polk-A-Dot Drive In. This 1950s style diner was closed the morning I drove by, but I still got to enjoy its awesome outdoor offerings. This drive-in diner was founded in 1956…same birthyear as me. It is decorated with a number of life-sized fiberglass statues of movie stars and more. I was able to get another Blues Brothers fix, but was also able to hang out with Marilyn Monroes and visit a nine-foot tall Elvis.
And, as if the Polk-A-Dot didn’t offer enough, there is a unique menagerie of animal sculptures made from plastic and scrap metal. These were created by Jack Barker, who was an artist from Essex, Illinois. He had built an Art Sculpture Garden in Essex that gained local fame. Though only eight miles off of Route 66, I didn’t take the opportunity to visit. Jack passed away in 2012 at the age of 78. To honor Mr. Barker, the Mayor of Braidwood at the time of his passing had local businesses purchase some of his work and dedicated the Braidwood Zoo. Most of his other art work was auctioned off in 2012.
Continuing on Route 66, I hit the small village of Godley, Illinois
From Godley I drove through Braceville. Not much there, but they did have the Wicked Cricket Bar & Grill. Now THAT is a fun name. It was also closed on this morning drive, but I still made it a point to see the cricket.
For wildlife and nature enthusiasts, you can grab some nature at the Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish & Wildlife Area. There is a nice little lake and there is also a clean Pit toilet if you need a pit stop.
Next stop on Route 66 is the small town of Gardner. At this point Old Route 66 parallels Illinois Highway 53 as both go through Gardner. This is home to the 2 Celled Jail and a couple of other Route 66 attractions. My favorite part here was getting the tie-dyed look Route 66 sign to match my hat! The Route 66 The Shop was closed but I got some outside shots.
Beginning in Gardner and apparently along many sections of Route 66 are replicas of old Burma-Shave roadside ads. The Minneapolis-based company sold shaving cream products from the 1920s to the mid-1960s and advertised along highways with interesting, and often humorous, rhyming poems on sequential highway signs. You can read an interesting story about the Burma-Shave signs on this article.
Many of the towns from this point on had these Photo Op signs with the town name on them. Here is Gardner’s sign.
And, in my continued quest for interesting signage, here is the VW Bus Sign for Every Buddies Pub & Grub in Gardner.
From Gardner it was on to Dwight, Illinois. This drive on Old Route 66 literally parallels Interstate 55 (The Barack Obama Presidential Expressway). Fortunately, I was able to avoid the interstate by staying on the old, slower highway.
Though not a Route 66 iconic site, the Pioneer Gothic Church in Dwight is a lovely and rare example of a wood-framed Carpenter Gothic Church. It was built in 1857 and has an 80 foot tall steeple. The church building was donated to the township and now serves as the Dwight Township Town Hall.
Another historic building in Dwight is old train depot. Built in 1891, it served as a train depot. Today, it is the home of the Dwight Historical Society Museum and the Area Chamber of Commerce. It is now one of only a few remaining railroad stations between Chicago and St. Louis that features architectural designs from the 1880s.
Like many other Route 66 towns, Dwight has a nice touristy area including an old Texaco Service Station that serves as a Route 66 Tourist info center. It features not only the station with the antique pumps and all, but there are murals, information signs and even volunteer folks to welcome you to town. Very friendly.
Next on the route was Odell, another small community on Old Route 66 that parallels I-55. Odell features an old Standard Oil Gas Station
The next stop along the way was Pontiac, Illinois, perhaps the real mecca of Illinois Route 66 stops.
Pontiac is the home the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Museum. Along with the museum, there are currently 23 murals and other Route 66 things. As a collector of murals, it was a great stop for me!! Due to space, I am not providing the histories of any of these murals, but you can see them on the Pontiac Murals on Main Street page.
Pontiac is also home to 15 Miniature Cars that were designed and decorated by local artists. These include ten ’57 Chevys and 3 Pickup Trucks. I snapped a couple of these for fun. They apparently go into storage during the winter months.
Finally, Abraham Lincoln is important throughout Illinois. There is a nice statue of him downtown.
Honestly, Pontiac could be an all day affair in and of itself. But, for me, I had to move on. Next stop along the way was Lexington, Illinois, which really didn’t have a lot of Route 66 things to see. But, it was along the way.
After Lexington was Towanda, IL, home of Dead Man’s Curve on Old Route 66.
Next stop for me was a quick drive through Normal, Illinois. I have been through Normal many times, so I tried to get a couple of the Route 66 highlights on my way through.
I continued on towards McLean, IL
Then on to Atlanta, Illinois, another nice stop with some Route 66 fun.
Probably the biggest draw in Atlanta is the giant Hot Dog Muffler Man in downtown. Once residing in Cicero, IL, it was moved to Atlanta in 2003.
From Atlanta it was on to Lincoln, Illinois.
After Lincoln it was time to head into Springfield, IL, the capitol of Illinois. I had to add the Capitol Building to my collection of courthouses and Capitol Buildings. And, of course, a stop at Cozy Drive In is almost required if in Springfield! In April 1837, Abraham Lincoln moved to Springfield and joined the law firm of John Todd Stuart.
Cozy Drive In got its start on Route 66 in 1949. They claim to be the home of the “Original” hot dog on a stick, what many call Corn Dogs. But, here, they are called Cozy Dogs! This was my third visit to Cozy Drive In.
After a dinner of Cozy Dogs, fried mushrooms and onion rings, I was back on the road. The day had slipped past me and I was running out of time with two major stops planned. Unfortunately, the next stop was going to at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch (aka Henry’s Ra66it Ranch) in Staunton, IL, but he had closed. Fortunately, I had been there before and I have even featured Henry’s in my third book of my Less Beaten Paths series. You can read my post about that 2013 visit here.
That said, my final stop had to be done before it got dark, so I booked it towards Collinsville so I could get that long-desired photo of the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle!! And I did make it. This water tower is 170 Feet tall
My plans were to finish up Route 66 in East St. Louis, Illinois with a sunset photo or two of St. Louis and the Gateway Arch, as taken from across the Mississippi River. And I was able to get that done as well. It was a couple of long days from Chicago to East St. Louis, but boy was it fun!!
If you like what you see, you can check out my books which cover so much more!
LESS BEATEN PATHS OF AMERICA TRAVEL SERIES
You can get my books online! The series now has five books and I am working on books six and seven. Book Six will be all about murals from all over the country!! Watch for them later this year.