Published on November 17th, 20110
The Midwestern Mother Road
By: Theresa Carter of The Local Tourist
Road trips are a Midwestern tradition, and Route 66 is the “Mother” of all road trips. Affectionately known as The Mother Road, this highway extends for almost 2,500 miles from Chicago to LA. Although it was decommissioned in 1985 to make way for faster means to get from point A to point B, anyone who’s traveled Route 66 knows: it’s not about the destination, but the journey.
Driving the entire route is quite the undertaking, but you don’t have to commit to a cross-country trip to get a feel for its romanticism. You don’t even have to leave the Midwest, since Illinois and Missouri boast miles and miles of the historic byway – including its very beginning. We’ll take you from east to west; from Chicago, IL, all the way to the edge of Missouri.
Walk down Jackson street in Chicago and you’ll see “Historic Route 66” signs in between the tow zone warnings and the valet sandwich boards. The Mother Road began in 1926 at the intersection of Jackson and Michigan and after the 1933 World Fair it was moved to Lake Shore Drive. Jackson is one way heading east, so you’ll have to actually drive west on Adams until you get to Ogden. But before you leave the Windy City, stop in at Lou Mitchell’s for some eggs and Milk Duds, which they’ve been serving since 1923.
On your way west you’ll also want to crane your neck at the Willis, formerly Sears, Tower. Sandwiched between Jackson and Adams, it may no longer be the tallest building in the world but it still holds that distinction on Route 66.
Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket
Following the original route out of Chicago is not an easy task. While the route is well marked through much of Illinois, Chicago is, well, Chicago, so Route 66 signs aren’t as plentiful in the Windy City. Whether you choose to drive 25 or 2500 miles the “EZ66 Guide For Travelers” is an indispensable tool for your trip. It’ll guide you through the twists and turns, and without it you’d most likely miss spots like Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket. Tucked in a corner of a frontage road in Willowbrook, it began as a gas station lunch counter and turned into a full-fledged restaurant in 1946, and it’s still known for having some of the best fried chicken around.
As you leave the urban areas and enter the rural you’ll start to feel like you’re actually on Route 66. Much of the time you’ll be driving right along I-55 and, while you might longingly look at those cars and semis speeding by, you’re also more likely to be enchanted by a random mural or a “giant” that’s designed to make you pull over, snap a picture, and maybe stop in for a milkshake. These towns seem to line up one right after another, so don’t put your camera away.
Wilmington, IL, is home to the Gemini Giant. This fiberglass spaceman invites you to pull over at the Launching Pad Drive-In. They’ve been serving up hot dogs and ice cream to road warriors for five decades.
In Dwight you can’t miss the big mural, and in Odell there’s a lovingly restored 1932 Standard Oil Station. Right outside the town is a Merramec Caverns ad painted on the side of a barn. Pontiac boasts the Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum, and Towanda has walking tours. You’ll definitely want to slow down here, because that’s when you’ll start to see the first Burma Shave roadside poems!
Next up is Bloomington/Normal, and besides being home to Nestle and Beer Nuts, they also have the McLean County Museum Of History, located in the old 1903 courthouse. After you leave this area don’t miss Funks Grove “Maple Sirup”.
McLean County Museum of History
Funks Grove “Maple Sirup”
Atlanta is another don’t-miss town. They’ve taken a big interest in the revitalization of Route 66 and it shows. Besides, here’s where you’ll find Bunyon’s Giant, brother to the Gemini Giant and one of the last three of these “Muffler Men.”
In Springfield you can drive part of the original brick road that was completed in 1931. The route continues to take you through small towns that time – and the highway – has passed by, until you reach the Chain Of Rocks Bridge. This bridge was built in 1929, became part of Route 66 in 1936 and has been closed since 1970, but in the late 90s it was turned into a biking and walking trail. Its distinctive feature is its 22 degree bend in the middle of the Mississippi River. You can’t drive across the river here, but it’s definitely worth a stop!
Once you do cross the river you can’t miss the Gateway Arch. This symbol of westward expansion greets everyone as they enter St. Louis. For Route 66 veterans it’s a sign that one of their favorite treats is nearby. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is known from Chicago to L.A. for its thick, rich “concretes” – ice cream concoctions that make Blizzards look like a light dusting. There are two locations but you’ll want to visit the one on Chippewa. Just be aware that it’s busy all day, every day!
Outside of St. Louis stop by the Route 66 State Park. It’s home to a museum and a gift shop, where you can purchase the EZ 66 Guide if you haven’t already gotten one! The museum has signs from The Mother Road’s glory days and all sorts of paraphernalia from its past.
In Stanton visit the Jesse James Wax Museum. There you’ll learn that the outlaw didn’t actually die in a shoot-out in the 1870’s. Nope. He lived out his years in Stanton until 1952 under the law-abiding-citizen name of J. Frank Dalton. Or so they say.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, Cuba welcomes you with the Wagon Wheel Motel. This is another “roadie” favorite, and it’s recently been refurbished. They even have free wifi in every room! In the town itself you’ll see several murals, so many they’ve nicknamed themselves Mural City.
All of this driving may have you wanting to sit and rock a spell. Well, then pull right over in Fanning, ‘cause they have the World’s Largest Rocking Chair! This giant piece of furniture was built on – when else – April Fool’s Day and you can find it at the US 66 Outpost and General Store.
Gay Parita Sinclair Station (Source)
World’s Largest Rocking Chair (Source)
The attractions are wonderful, but one of the best things about driving Route 66 is the people. One person in particular is known the entire stretch for his hospitality. Gary Turner built his Gay Parita Sinclair Station monument outside of Paris Springs, and if you stop to take a picture he’ll amble out to chat with you.
After Paris Springs you’ll see Carthage and its restored drive-in theater and the Civil War Museum, and then you’ll drive through Carterville and Webb City before reaching Joplin. Earlier this year the town was devastated by tornadoes. Route 66 doesn’t take you through the part that was destroyed, but it’s worth diverting your trip just to feel the impact of what a tornado can do, and maybe stop and help out for a bit.
These are just some of the many things you’ll see when you drive Route 66. Every turn offers something new, something that can’t be seen when you’re going 70MPH looking to get to the next rest area. It’s a piece of American history, a living, breathing piece that invites you to be part of it and help create its future. Check out more from The Local Tourist, and be sure to follow @TheLocalTourist on Twitter and on Facebook!
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