Motoring West: Route 66 in Illinois

The Mother Road, the Main Street of the America, the Will Rogers Highway; no matter what you call it, there is no stretch of road more synonymous with Americana and our country’s love of automobiles than Route 66. From the date of its establishment, 91 years ago today, until June 26, 1985, when it was officially decommissioned, countless numbers of travelers have cruised along this famed 2,448-mile stretch of highway.

While it was Jen that first got her kicks, and succumbed to the siren song of America’s most famous highway, it didn’t take long for Jay to fall under its spell too. From our first road trip together in 2008, we talked about our dream to one day drive what remained of Route 66. Nine and a half years, four moves, and one sold business later, we heeded the call of the open road and made our dream a reality. On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-September, we were “running south on Lake Shore Drive heading into town” (free t-shirt for the first person to email us the name of the band that used these lyrics in a song) to the modern-day start of Route 66. With no time constraints and an open-ended schedule, the most important decisions ahead were where to eat (because Jen is always thinking about the next meal) and which roadside attractions we would stop at for pictures. There are tons of great things to experience along Route 66 and there is no way that we could cover all of them in a single trip; however, we still managed to pack quite a bit in during our five days in Illinois and have chosen our favorites things to do, see, and eat.

What to Do

Pose with the Gemini Giant- Wilmington
Along the main road in the small town of Wilmington stands the impossible-to-miss 30-foot tall Gemini Giant. Unique in his theme but not in his purpose, the Gemini Giant is a Muffler Man, one of the giant fiberglass statues that were produced by the hundreds in the 1960s to promote roadside businesses. Standing watch over the recently purchased and under renovation Launching Pad Drive-In, the Gemini Giant was placed at his post in 1965 and named for the Gemini Space Program, as America was in the midst of the its space age craze.

Not having missed a day of work in the past 50+ years, the Gemini Giant looks pretty darn good and is worthy of a stop and photos. Make sure everyone gets the chance to pose, even the dog! And even though we weren’t able to check it out, be sure to see if the Launching Pad is reopened; and if it is, stop in, enjoy a meal, and thank the new owners for helping to save this long-time Route 66 stop.

Gemini Giant

Visit the 1932 Standard Service Station- Odell
Perhaps the best way to gauge the true volume of cars that once traveled along Route 66 is by the number of former service stations. While some still exist, they are almost entirely modern-day stations with all of the expected conveniences. Sadly, the majority of the stations that once lined the roads, providing a level of service that us Gen-Xers can only dream about, are at best abandoned and at worst a grassy patch or cracked concrete pad as the only remnant of where a station once stood. However, through the dedication of local residents, Route 66 enthusiasts, and forward-thinking preservationists, some of those original service stations have been restored to their former glory.

One of the best examples of a restored station came early in our travels in the small town of Odell. A former Standard Oil station built in 1932, the aptly named 1932 Standard Oil Filling Station, looks as though you could pull up to the pump and get gassed up for your journey ahead. From the original gravity fill pump, the garage filled with vintage oil cans and testing equipment, and the original secret hiding place for the front door key, it’s easy to imagine how this station looked more than 80 years ago. Now home to the local welcome center, be sure to stop in and pick up a tasty Route 66 Soda and a few souvenirs to ensure that this station remains for many more generations of Route 66 travelers to come.

1932 Standard Service Station

Drive the Original Brick Road- Auburn
It isn’t yellow, but we strongly encourage you to follow the original 1.4 miles of brick road on the original alignment of Route 66 between Auburn and Chatham. Laid by hand in 1931, it is the first stretch of Route 66 we encountered where we could easily imagine what it looked like when auto enthusiasts took to the open road back in the day.

What to See

Begin Historic Route 66 Sign- Adams Street, Chicago
It’s not the easiest place to stop and grab a picture; in fact, there may not even be stopping involved at all. And do yourself a favor in advance, be prepared to battle traffic to get there, no matter which direction you’re coming from. The official start of Route 66 was originally at the intersection of Jackson and Michigan Avenues, but Jackson became a one-way street heading east in later years making its current location on Adams (the one-way westbound counterpart), the new starting point. Despite the effort you’ll have to put in to get to the beginning of Route 66, no trip is complete without a picture of the sign. Even if you have to snag a picture while one person drives and the other hangs out the window snapping photos while you drive by as slowly as possible without causing a traffic jam (this was our method), be sure to capture the official start of your journey.

The Start!

Dead Man’s Curve- Towanda
There are a number of places along Route 66 (and many other roads) that have a stretch known as “dead man’s curve”; but one of the most famous and a contributor to the route’s less than flattering nickname of “Bloody 66“, is in Towanda. On the original stretch of Route 66 (Illinois Route 4) in the tiny town of Towanda was a perilous curve, only 18-feet wide for two lanes of traffic, which became the site of many car accidents. A house once sat to the west of the curve and frequently had to replace its front porch due to being hit, until eventually being torn down after a semi knocked it from its foundation. Still drivable, complete with replica Burma Shave signs, you can visualize how coming around the curve too quickly could have had dire consequences. Definitely worth a drive, just be sure to take it nice and slow!

Turkey Tracks- Nilwood
On the shoulder of a quiet farm road to the south of the Central Illinois town of Nilwood, sits a colorful metal turkey. When the concrete for this stretch of Illinois Route 4/Route 66 was originally laid in the 1920s, some of the local fowl decided to leave their mark. Just in front of the metal turkey, within the painted white box are surprisingly intact turkey (and potentially other critter) tracks. Still in remarkably good shape, considering how many cars have driven over the tracks in the last (almost) century, it is a definitely a sight to see and sniff.

Soulsby Shell Service Station- Mt. Olive
Another wonderfully restored service station that shouldn’t be missed while traveling Route 66 through Illinois is the Soulsby Shell Service Station in Mt. Olive. Built in 1926, the same year that Route 66 was established, the station survived as a fully functioning fuel stop until 1991. After sitting dormant for a number of years, it was sold to a neighbor in 1997; and restoration efforts began in the early 2000s. Preservation efforts brought it back to its 1950s appearance, including restoration of the original doors and windows, and a fresh coat of red and yellow striped Shell-themed paint along the base of the building. Plans to restore the inside are still in the works; but in the meantime, you can still pull under the canopy and imagine what it would have been like to “fill ‘er up” back in the heyday of Route 66.

Soulsby's Service Station

What to Eat

Fried Chicken at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket- Willowbrook
As you head west from the heart of downtown Chicago and make your way into the western suburbs, you might find yourself needing a break and some food to replenish energy for your drive. One of a small group of successful survivors of Route 66’s glory days in the Chicagoland area, Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket has been the place to “Get Your Chicks on Route 66” since 1946. Despite the construction of I-55 in the 1960s, which cut-off access to the restaurant, Dell Rhea’s continues to feed many hungry travelers, making 2,000 pounds of chicken per week. Before becoming a famous for their fried chicken, the restaurant was just a lunch counter in a service station in the ‘30s. At some point in time during this iteration, two local farmers overheard the owner mention that we wanted to expand his food offerings, so they offered their fried chicken recipe and to teach the owner how to properly cook the chicken, if he would promise to buy the chickens only from them. Not surprisingly, a deal was struck and that same “secret” recipe is still used today, more than 70 years later.

We started our travels along Route 66 late in the day, which made our first overnight stop within walking distance of the restaurant. We didn’t have the opportunity to dine-in as we travel with our dog, Finley, so we took our orders to-go and dined in our motel room. Before we get to the food, let’s talk about the recently restored original neon sign, standing in place since 1946. At night, it casts a warm red neon glow across the parking lot and the era-appropriate red and white striped awning that covers the front wall of windows; it is vintage, has mesmerizing moving lights, and is perfect for a comfort food stop that has generously filled bellies for multiple generations.

For our entrées, we both ordered a Chicken Basket, which includes four pieces of chicken, fries, coleslaw, and a biscuit; as well as opting to share an order of the Corn Fritters. Little, these pieces are not; we could have easily shared a basket and still been full. We both agreed that the best piece was the chicken breast with its light coat of breading and juicy meat. Different from the usual thickly breaded and crunchy fried chicken, we found it to be surprisingly light…for fried chicken. While the chicken was good, the superstar of the basket was the biscuit. Fluffy top, crunchy bottom, and loaded with butter, it was amazing and almost the best thing we ate; that distinction, however, goes to the corn fritters. Crunchy exterior with a fluffy inside and dusted with powdered sugar, it was a savory and sweet treat. With our large volume of food, we only managed one or two each (an order comes with six fritters), leaving us with leftovers for the next morning. Let’s just say that they were equally as good with coffee the next morning, as they had been with the chicken the night before. As the first true Route 66 dining experience of our trip, all we can say is winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket

Cozy Dog at the Cozy Dog Drive In- Springfield
What started as a cornbread covered hot dog on a cocktail stick, called a “crusty cur”, at the Amarillo Airfield, would eventually lead to the creation of the Cozy Dog Drive-In in Springfield. Claiming to be home to the first corn dog served on a stick, the current Cozy Dog (next door to the original location) sits between a relatively new Walgreens and a small strip mall with a video store and pizza place on the busy I-55 Business Loop, which makes it’s tough to imagine how it looked when it opened in a small stand outside of founder Ed Waldmire’s house in 1946. What isn’t hard to imagine is how Cozy Dogs became so popular.

Stopping by for lunch, we ordered two Cozy Dogs, a large fry, and a hamburger. We know, we know, why do you go to the original home of a corn dog on a stick and order a hamburger? We confess that prior to this stop, one of us (Jen) had never had a corn dog that she really enjoyed, so the hamburger was a back-up option. Turns out that the Cozy Dog wasn’t just good, it completely changed Jen’s perspective on corn dogs. Served steaming hot, the super crisp batter made from the family’s secret recipe that surrounded a slightly spicy hot dog was surprisingly not greasy and very delicious. The fries were a thicker-cut potato with the skin on, which we liked, though they were in need of some salt. As for that hamburger, it too was really tasty and as it was thin and not too large, makes it a perfect side to go with your Cozy Dogs.

With our trip planned for thirty-ish days, we were somewhat selective in which must-stop and iconic restaurants we chose for meals along Route 66, especially since it wouldn’t be hard to spend a month eating at nothing but roadside diners and ice cream stands. If you are at all selective about your stops, be sure that this is one of them. Whether it’s for lunch or dinner, whether you choose to sit inside the restaurant or head to the drive-through, like we did, and enjoy a meal from the comfort of your car (it is a “drive in”, after all), don’t miss an opportunity to try the “Famous Hot Dog on a Stick”.

Cozy Dog Drive-In