You can take the word “surprises” as both a noun and a verb. I recently spent 4 days in Illinois with my husband. I was surprised (verb) that I enjoyed it as much as I did, having never really investigated what there was to do in Illinois. We had a number of surprises (noun) that made the trip an eye-opener.
We flew from Boston to Chicago non-stop on United Airlines. I enjoyed the flight. That was the first surprise. I actually was comfortable on the flight and we arrived early – yes, you read that right, I said early. We effortlessly retrieved our luggage and got a rental car. Surprise – the rental was brand new. It only had 77 miles on it when we set off (that definitely changed!).
Since we planned to spend our first 2 days in the Springfield, IL area, we had two choices: travel by highway and arrive early for check-in or take the low road. We often prefer the low road anyway, but in this case, the low road was US Route 66. “America’s mother road.” Route 66, “the Main Street of America,” began in Chicago, IL and meandered through Springfield, IL, St Louis, MO, Galena, KS, Oklahoma City, OK, Amarillo, TX, Albuquerque, NM, Flagstaff, AZ and finally arrived in Los Angeles, CA.
We had landed in Chicago, the starting point. It made sense to us to set off from there and follow Rte 66 as much as possible. I say as much as possible because there are now places where it runs with a “new and improved” super highway or with state routes.
As we watched Chicago recede in the rear view mirror, we passed through towns like Joliet, Elwood and Wilmington. After that, we began to find towns that still resembled the places where you could “get your kicks on Rte 66.” Braidwood (where we stopped at a WalMart for supplies), Godley, Braceville, Gardner (which has a memorial site that includes the US and a Rte 66 flag), Dwight, Odell (where a 1930’s Sinclair gas station still stands) and Pontiac.
Pontiac held more surprises! Pontiac proved to be a gem. Remarkably well-preserved, it had plenty to see and do. Our first stop was the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum.
Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum
See Route 66 memorabilia from Hall of Fame members!
Travel the highway by visiting Route 66 towns on our flip-rack library!
See the Route 66 State Farm Arch!
Much much more!
Winter Hours Start December 1st!
Mon-Fri 11:00 – 3:00
Sat-Sun 10:00 – 4:00
Mon-Fri 9:00 – 5:00
Sat-Sun 10:00 – 4:00
Hosted this day by a friendly volunteer named Ruth, we wandered through several floors of memorabilia and displays, listening to the stories Ruth told as she wove the history of the road into the displays we saw. She took us out the back door of the building to see the Route 66 mural that was painted on the back of the building as well as the Roszell’s Soda Fountain mural on the building behind the museum. More on murals in a bit. Admission to museum: Free.
The top floor of the building contains a number of rooms that house the Livingston County War Museum. At first we hesitated to go in. I’m not a big fan of war. We quickly checked out one of the outer rooms and were about to leave when we were caught. A wily veteran snuck up behind us and invited us into the inner rooms. How can you refuse a veteran?
So we followed him into the main room of the tiny museum. We learned that this is a living history site because the staff is made up of military veterans and history enthusiasts who share experiences and answer questions. The folks who were there on the day we visited were warm and friendly. They have a small library and artifacts from veterans of IL from World War I until the present. I personally think they are going to need a larger space soon – there have been many generous veterans who have donated items to this museum.
One aspect of the museum that I found particularly interesting was the huge display of uniforms from every war. The uniforms are displayed on mannequins instead of in cases. Each uniform has a photo and story about the actual person who wore that uniform. This makes the display really personal and intimate. I highly recommend this small museum. Admission: Free.
After visiting the shops near the museums, we headed off to eat at the Log Cabin Restaurant. The restaurant has been in business since the 1920’s, so we figured there must be some good food there. We were right. And while the restaurant is now housed in a newer building than the original log cabin (which remains next door), it has the ambience of a well-loved local eatery. Service and food were both good. This was not, of course, free. But we got value for our money.
Oh yes, I said I would tell you more about the murals. Pontiac, IL currently has 19 murals painted on the exteriors of various buildings throughout the town. No admission needed to view these amazing pieces of pop art. There are numerous locations to pick up a free map/brochure.
To be honest, we almost hated to leave Pontiac, IL. The people were so warm and friendly, the town so clean and the attractions reasonably priced (free) that they draw you in and make you want to stay.
But we had to move on to Springfield, so after eating we left Pontiac behind and continued on Route 66. I’ll give some links to the Pontiac locations at the end of the post.
We passed through more small towns and open, flat fields. In the Bloomington area I saw something I hope never to see again. It was one of the most ugly housing developments I could imagine. No, it was a “project” or low income housing. It was large, new homes – all in shades of pale yellow – that must have numbered in the hundreds. Houses that were all the same, more or less. As far as the eye could see, yellow houses, all on very small lots that would allow you to see into your neighbor’s house. Route 66 actually went through the area and it was clear to see that, if you didn’t know where you were going, you could get very lost very easily. I could never live in a place like that. What were those developers thinking?!!
We gladly left that area and passed through more small towns: Shirley, Funks Grove (famous for maple syrup, though I think it must be a really funky place to live (groan)), McLean, Atlanta, Lawndale, Lincoln, Broadwell, Elkhart and Williamsville.
It had taken us hours longer to get from Chicago to Springfield than it would have if we’d taken the highway. But taking “the mother road” was a lot more interesting and far more fun. We met wonderful people, saw interesting sights and arrived in Springfield relaxed and ready for the next day’s sightseeing.
I highly recommend this stretch of Route 66 and especially encourage you to visit Pontiac, IL. You won’t regret it if you do.
Pontiac Illinois Tourism Bureau http://visitpontiac.org/