Day 4: Illinois Route 66 Starts Here

Early wake up today, and it wasn’t even hard, because we were so excited to be FINALLY setting out on Route 66. We checked out of the hotel and were loaded into the Jeep by 7am, camera batteries fully charged, spirits high, and ready to go.

Now we just had to find the “start” point. Somehow it seemed important to me that we start at the “official” beginning, so we headed back toward Grant Park on Adams Street in front of the Art Institute, where the “Route 66 Starts Here” sign is located, and turned around and were off! As if to cheer us on, the sun was shinning and skies were blue — the perfect day for a drive!

We rolled easily through the city in the early morning calm, and just encountered the first signs of the morning rush while transiting the more rundown section of the city before losing our way in the suburbs, then finding it again a few turns later…

Our first discovery was that Route 66 is something of a puzzle. Even with the directions and the maps and the signs, it’s so easy to miss a turn or misinterpret a direction, and suddenly we are no longer “on” the Route. And yet, even those unintended detours can lead to some incredible experiences. The road is a collection of imagery, of sensations, of ideas, all threaded together by this ribbon of asphalt taking us from one to the next. Its like a grown-up “treasure hunt” — the maps and directions give us clues, but it is up to us to find the path and keep our eyes open for the delights it has to offer along the way.

Driving through the iconic midwestern prairie farmland, the road is straight and level over perfectly flat terrain.We were inside “the Heartland” driving right through it’s very essence. It’s vastness. All on a giant-size scale. And the Road. The road is the lifeline. Keeping us moving. Keeping a nation alive. The road is vital to survival. Looking back at history we see this amazing road, which just traces earlier roads connecting main streets from Chi-town to the Hollywood lights. This road is history. The history of our country. Of westward expansion. Of America’s dreams.

We were beginning to feel like we hadn’t given ourselves enough time.

ACCIDENTAL ATTRACTIONS

The whole length of Illinois Route 66 is full of great stops. With so many wonderful discoveries out there, we were a bit frustrated that we only had time to visit a few. We realized that we definitely should have taken at least two days for this segment (and if i recall, there were some wise folks at the Historic 66 Forum who suggested we do just that). But we didn’t dare fall behind so early in the journey, we had to keep moving. So we did our best to enjoy the first part of Illinois Route 66 via the window, watching it roll by, like a film, as we passed.

Thinking about it, our experience was probably quite similar to the thousands of people who made those classic “road trips” built around a couple of stopovers on the way to a main destination further west. For them the trip was planned around the stops. We had done it backwards, with the drive itself as the “point” of our trip. The attractions were… well, kind of like decorations on a Christmas tree, each one is really cool and interesting, but the whole tree is the main event. The ensemble was key. And on this, our first day on the Mother Road, we were beginning to edit together visual highlights mentally as we drove.

The funny thing was that a lot of the “highlights” weren’t the “must-see-attractions” on our list, but rather some odd thing along the Route that pulled us to stop for no reason at all. For Cactus Killer, it was train tracks. For me it was “real farms.” Big gi-normous farms.

A wrong turn somewhere in search of an old alignment had us following a country road into a corn maze of massive proportions. We were driving through corn taller than our Jeep. Corn on all sides. And nothing but corn on the horizon.

I was fascinated by the size of this “farm.” Rows upon rows upon rows of corn with nothing else in sight. It reminded me of other places I had been, other images, but it also was something I had never seen before. I mean I have seen corn and I have seen farms, and I have seen farms that grow corn, but I have never ever seen it on quite this scale!

And while Cactus Killer was less fascinated by the cornfields than I was, she was still kind of impressed at the scale of modern American agribusiness.

Somehow, we had this fuzzy child-like idea about “family farms” lovingly tended by folks who resembled the couple in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Even though we knew that agriculture had been transformed by technology into a highly specialized cash-grain business, we still sort of expected a sleepy agricultural region centered on family farms with picturesque small towns in between. … Well, at least the towns were still picturesque!

ATLANTA (ILLINOIS, NOT GEORGIA)

We finally took a “break” from the drive at Atlanta, a nicely restored town that is at about the half-way point between Chicago and St. Louis.

It looked like a movie set as we crossed the railroad tracks into the center of town. An American main street circa the 1950s. Small American flags decorated every lampost, and in the center of the main street, stood “Tall Paul,” his brighly painted red and blue colors drew the eye, much as he was originally intended to do. The 19-foot tall statue stood for more than 38 years in front of Bunyon’s Hotdog Stand in nearby Cicero, and when that restaurant was closed, the family loaned the iconic statue to Atlanta, where it was restored and given it’s new home just across from The Palms Grill.

Route 66 once had hundreds of these giant statues, known as “Muffler Men.” Made of vibrantly colored fiberglass, they were a popular retail “attention-getter” that helped businesses stand out among the thousands of billboards, murals, and other forms of roadside adverstising that tempted travellers to stop. Most were created in the 1960s by a company from Venice California, called International Fiberglass.

The first one, manufactured for the Paul Bunyan Cafe on Rt. 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona, was a lumberjack figure designed to hold an axe. The same mold was used to produce hundreds of others. Frequently they advertised auto service stations, with a muffler or tire, in place of the axe (hence the name “muffler man”). But whimsical businessmen from all sorts of enterprises ordered the customized giants. In 1965, H. A. Stephens, purchased one, swapped its axe for a hotdog, and placed it in front of his restaurant, Bunyon’s Hotdog Stand, on Rt. 66 in Cicero. Stephens had purposefully misspelled the name of his business (“Bunyon” instead of “Bunyan”) in order to avoid a potential trademark conflict with the Paul Bunyan Cafe. Nevermind, “Tall Paul” got his name and soon became a Route 66 landmark.

We took some pictures of Tall Paul and had lunch at The Palms, then took a short walk around town to stretch our legs, before getting back on the road.

THE OZARKS

We still had a lot of driving to do, and just outside of Springfield, the capital of Illinois, we veered off Route 66. Even though Springfield is full of great historical sites, we decided we’d better avoid the urban traffic and make up some time on the Interstate if we hoped to make it to our evening’s campsite before dark! We were a bit disappointed to miss the Cozy Dog Drive-In, but luckily we were quite full from lunch.

As we entered the Ozarks, near Mount Olive, where the flatland began slowly morphing into rolling hills, we were back on the Mother Road.

Mountains equal mining towns around here, and many of the small towns along this stretch of Route 66 grew up around mining interests. As elsewhere, coal miners lived a hard life. Most were immigrant laborers, and were poorly paid to work in very dangerous conditions. Their circumstances were complicated by the fact that the mining companies “owned” the towns, requiring the workers to rent their homes from the company, and buy their tools and equipment from company stores. The men were even paid with coupons, called “scrip” that could only be used at the company stores.

Clashes between miners and bosses were frequent, as the companies surpressed attempts to unionize. The United Mine Workers of America, formed in 1890, was the first nationwide union, and it was a group from Mount Olive, that started a march through neighboring coal towns, calling fellow miners to impromptu rallies in 1892. The United Mine Workers got the companies to agree to establish an eight hour day, pay a mutually agreed upon wage, and do away with the hated company stores.

But in the fall of 1898, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company locked the union workers out of the mines and brought up “replacement” workers from the south. There was a clash at Virden, just north of Mount Olive, when a train carrying 180 African-American miners and their families passed a band of armed strikers. Seven miners and five of the mining company’s armed guards were killed and 45 others wounded in what came to be known as the “Virden Massacre.”

The train turned back to St. Louis and labor strife continued well into the 20th century.

Today the coal mines are long gone, but Mount Olive remains “famous” as the final resting place of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, a fierce advocate for the rights of coal miners. Mother Jones requested to be buried with “her boys” – the miners that she championed for decades, and you can visit her grave at the cemetery on the northwestern edge of town, just off I-55.

We had no time to stop as we pushed on towards Missouri, we were already running late.

TOWARDS ST. LOUIS

It had been an exciting first day, and we were feeling a bit ragged by the time we came to the outskirts of the suburban sprawl around St. Louis. There was no way question of stopping for the Chain of Rocks Bridge, so we decided to bypass the city completely.

Still we perked up when we saw the Gateway Arch, symbolic entrance to the western frontier. St. Louis came into focus, then disappeared from sight as we drove past.

Another landscape change, and we finished the drive day following the road along rocky hills into the Meramec State Park. The park seemed rather empty for the time of year, though evidence of recent rain pointed to the likely explanation. We were greeted at our campsite by three slightly skinny deer. They were so brazen they barely moved over to let the Jeep pass…

> NEXT: MISSOURI, MERAMEC RIVER ADVENTURE


More from Illinois Route 66:
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: Portfolio: Illinois Route 66
PRACTICAL MATTERS: Route 66, What It Means…
REFLECTIONS & OTHER THINGS: The Palms Grill Cafe, Atlanta, IL


Back to Chicago | Complete Trip Log | Start at the Beginning

2 Responses to “Day 4: Illinois Route 66 Starts Here”

  1. Garden Weasel says:

    It sounds like a very Long trip. Too bad you did not have more time to really explore more of the towns along the way.

    The corn fields were interesting, maybe because I like corn.

    The coal mines were interesting, I never knew they had mining in that area.

    It must have been tiring, all those roads. You must have had sore behinds when you got to the camp sites.

  2. Blue Coyote says:

    Yeah, one of the things we wished we had, was more time. Even though it seemed like the trip was really “long” in terms of planning, once we were actually out on the road, we were constantly wishing we had MORE time to spend in each place. There was so much to discover and you could really spend days in a lot of these places. But we had to stick to the program (more or less) or we would never make it there and back…

    (and btw, yes, “Cactus Killer” did complain about a “sore butt” after days of driving… LOL)

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