Before air travel became commonplace, Americans’ love of the open road was spurred on by Route 66, one of the nation’s original highways.
Beginning in Chicago, the 2,448-mile route originally crossed Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before ending in Santa Monica, California.
This American icon recently celebrated its 90th birthday and continues to take travelers on a nostalgic American journey.
Few states have more Route 66 attractions than Illinois, which has nearly 300 miles of the iconic highway. Today, visitors can see several portions of the original route, including a short section of the original red-brick road just north of Auburn, off Route 4.
The Mother Road begins or ends, depending on your group’s starting point, in front of the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue. Many groups celebrate their journey at the classic American diner Lou Mitchell’s on Jackson Boulevard. Serving breakfast and lunch on a cash-only basis, it’s been in business since 1923. Another noteworthy eatery just outside of the city, Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, has served finger-licking fried chicken since 1938.
About 90 minutes from Chicago in Odell, the Standard Oil Gas Station no longer sells gasoline but serves as a welcome center with daily tours. The station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its old-fashioned gas pump and Standard Oil sign hanging from the roof look ready to serve the next customer.
Quintessential Pontiac celebrates the Mother Road in several of its 24 murals painted on downtown buildings. The Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum, sponsored by the Route 66 Association of Illinois, displays history of the entire route and unique memorabilia. For nearly 40 years, Bob Waldmire traveled Route 66 and created artwork depicting scenes along the way. In the museum parking lot, groups can tour his tricked-out school bus that he used as a home, an art gallery, a library and transportation. The city’s Oakland Automobile Museum on the courthouse square is also worth a stop.
The town of Towanda offers a pedestrian walk on an old alignment of Route 66; it’s lined by information posts depicting each of the route’s eight states. Tourists can buy maple syrup at Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup store where a full-production syrup operation existed even before Route 66 was constructed. The popular, giant Muffler Man in Atlanta, Illinois, still holds an enormous hot dog in his hands, and across the street, Palm’s Café and Grill serves blue-plate specials and delicious pie on tables graced with funky plastic palm trees.
The corn dog was invented at Springfield’s Cozy Dog Inn, which makes a welcome stop before crossing into Missouri. At the state line, pedestrians and cyclists can cross Madison’s Chain of Rock Bridge, which features a slight curve suspended over the Mississippi River.
Missouri was the first state to complete construction of Route 66. In the middle of the state, Pulaski County claims some of the best-preserved pavement of the original route, including an original 1926 gravel section.
In St. Louis, the Museum of Transportation maintains one of the largest and best collections of transportation vehicles in the world. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Chippewa Street opened in 1941 and still serves some of the nation’s best custard. Further west, Meramec Caverns was a popular stop, and the cave tour highlights this hideout once used by outlaw Jesse James. Nearby Cuba boasts 12 outdoor murals, and groups can stay overnight at the completely remodeled Wagon Wheel Motel, a Route 66 destination since 1934.
Route 66 runs right through the heart of Rolla. On the west end of town, a giant 1933 totem pole marks the oldest original business still in operation on Missouri’s Mother Road: the Totem Pole Trading Post. On the east end, folks are welcomed by the iconic Route 66 Mule.
In Pulaski County, groups can explore the revitalized Waynesville Square, the Pulaski County Courthouse Museum and the Old Stagecoach Stop Museum. In St. Robert, the new Uranus Route 66 General Store offers plenty of activities and themed photo ops. Visitors can mail a Route 66 postcard, postmarked from Sheldon’s Market and Post Office in the quaint river town of Devil’s Elbow. Sites include the Elbow Inn Bar and BBQ, originally the Munger Moss Sandwich Shop. Nearby, Hooker Cut highlights the innovative road and construction techniques of the era.
“Pulaski County offers step-on tours from Devil’s Elbow to Richland, plus DVD and trivia games to enhance the experience,” said Beth Wiles, executive director of the Pulaski County Tourism Bureau and Visitors Center.
Lebanon claims the Munger Moss Motel, built in 1946, with a vintage neon sign and auto court. Further west, the restored 1929 Gillioz Theatre is an impressive landmark in Springfield. The marquee sat directly on the road to attract patrons. Silent films, accompanied by an organ, talkies, vaudeville and, later, more sophisticated movies entertained locals and those passing through.
In Carthage, the Romanesque Revival styled Jasper County Courthouse, completed in 1895, is said to be the second-most-photographed building in the state. Carthage’s 66 Drive-In dates to 1949 and shows movies from the first weekend of April through mid-September.