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Get your kicks: Illinois’ 10 must-see Route 66 roadside attractions

Pontiac, Ill. is a must-see on any Route 66 trip. Adam Alexander Photography 2016 / Courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Route 66 is more than a sprawling, 2,440-mile connection between Chicago and Los Angeles. It’s a destination unto itself.

Designated in 1926 as the nation’s first-ever all-weather highway linking Chicago to Los Angeles, the iconic roadway literally put the idea of the cross-country road trip on the map. By the early 1950s, packing in the family car with a Rand McNally road atlas to traverse what John Steinbeck called the “Mother Road” had become a national pastime, accompanied by requisite stops along the way to see charming small towns, brightly lit neon signs, middle-of-nowhere truck stops and kitschy roadside attractions — idiosyncratic places and things that have become shorthand for Americana.

But Route 66, which was decommissioned in 1985, is now running on fumes, replaced by five interstate highways that connect Chicago to Los Angeles. The National Trust for Historic Preservation put the roadway on its most endangered historic places list for 2018. A proposal moving through Congress is attempting to preserve the tourism pipeline by designating it as a National Historic Trail.

In the meantime, it’s still possible to “get your kicks” on stretches of 66, as well as parts of I-55 between Chicago and St. Louis that have been adopted as the Route 66 Scenic Byway. Want to take drive through time on an Illinois road trip? Here are the can’t-miss sights and stops you’ll pass along the way:

Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago

The “Main Street of America” begins on a main thoroughfare in Chicago — Michigan Avenue. Outside of the Art Institute of Chicago, you can find the “End Historic Illinois U.S. Route 66” markers to officially launch you on your journey. If you’re planning on driving Route 66, why not glimpse some great American art, like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” at the 125-year-old museum before you embark on the great American road trip?

Pat Rhea outside Del Rhea’s Chicken Basket in 2008. | Sun-Times file photo

Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket
645 Joliet Rd, Willowbrook

Save your appetite for tasty fried chicken — and plenty of it — at this old-fashioned roadside restaurant whose slogan is “Get Your Chicks on Route 66.” Still cooking on Joliet Road seventy-plus years since it first grew from a humble service station lunch counter, the Route 66 mainstay serves up its signature baskets in a building that retains much of its classic appearance, including the restored original neon sign that dates back to 1946.

Roberto Adorno takes video of his wife Elinia standing next to the Gemini Giant in Wilmington. | Sun-Times file photo

Gemini Giant
810 E. Baltimore St., Wilmington

There are only three or four original “Muffler Men” still standing sentry along Route 66, but the 28-foot-tall roadside spaceman in Wilmington is one of a kind. The green Goliath holds a rocket advertising the Launching Pad, a diner established in 1965 that shuttered in 2010. The restaurant has new owners, who plan to reopen it in 2019. In the meantime, the Gemini Giant is still worth seeing on its own.

The Standard Oil gas station in Odell. | Wikimedia Commons

Standard Oil Gas Station
400 S. West St., Odell

You can’t fuel up there anymore, but this recently restored Depression-era gas station (which now houses a visitors’ center for the town of Odell) is like a time capsule of highway history, designed in 1932 based on a 1916 Standard Oil of Ohio design. Squint and you can almost imagine using the old-fashioned gas pump to fuel up before hopping back on old Route 66.

Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum
110 W. Howard St., Pontiac

No Route 66 pilgrimage in Illinois would be complete without a stop at this museum in Pontiac. It’s a repository for thousands of pieces of memorabilia, including booths from the world’s first Steak and Shake and a tribute to Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire that includes his VW hippie van and tours of his custom namesake Road Yacht.

 

The Sprague Super Service station is now a gift shop and visitors’ center. | Flickr/Teemu008

Sprague Super Service
305 Pine St., Normal

Once a thriving gas station, restaurant, and garage in Bloomington on Route 66, this unique Tudor-style two-story gas station closed when I-55 opened and led tourist traffic elsewhere. The nearly 90-year-old building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, and last year, new owner Terri Ryburn reopened it as Ryburn Place — a Route 66-themed gift shop and visitors’ center.

The Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup farm in Shirley. | Facebook/Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup

Funks Grove
5257 Old Route 66, Shirley

Between Bloomington and Springfield, driving down old Route 66 west of I-55 will lead you to Funks Grove. There you can visit the Funk family farm and sample their pure maple “sirup,” which the family has been bottling from the area’s sugar maple trees since 1824 and selling commercially since 1891. To sweeten the deal, the family maple grove happens to be seated at the midpoint of Route 66 in Illinois. Call ahead if you can — their sirup is available roughly from March through August, and the farm is open “by chance or appointment only” after September.

The Bunyon’s hot dog stand man is one of many Route 66 tributes in Atlanta. | Photo: The Palms Grill Cafe

Downtown Atlanta
100 block of Southwest Arch Street, Atlanta

Here in this tiny central Illinois town, you can find several tributes to Route 66 history, including a 19-foot-tall Muffler Man holding a massive hot dog in his hands (a relic from Bunyon’s hot dog stand in Cicero) and five murals created by more than 80 artists paying tribute to the roadside tradition of hand-painted advertisements. While you’re there, pop into the Route 66 Arcade Museum and grab a bite at the Palms Grill Cafe, a historic diner recently restored to mirror its appearance when it opened in 1934.

The Ariston Cafe is on the National Register of Historic Places. | Gorup de Besanez /Wikimedia Commons

The Ariston Cafe
413 N. Old Route 66, Litchfield

Founded by Greek immigrant Pete Adam in Carlinville in 1924, and in its current location since 1935, the Ariston Cafe is believed to be the oldest restaurant on Route 66. It still looks much like it did then, with its original walnut booths and tables, light fixtures and acoustical tile ceiling. Don’t leave without sampling their signature baklava and acclaimed fried artichoke hearts.

Painters, from Reinneck Industrial Coatings in O’Fallon, Ill., paint the famous Brooks Catsup bottle in Collinsville in 2009. | AP Photo/Belleville News-Democrat, Tim Vizer

World’s Largest Catsup Bottle
800 S. Morrison Ave., Collinsville

Built in 1949, this water tower advertises Brooks Foods, which was headquartered in Collinsville until the late 1970s. The 70-foot-tall bottle (perched atop a 100-foot-tall steel tower) could potentially hold up to 640,000 bottles of catsup, but instead holds 100,000 gallons of water. Before catsup-bottling operations were moved to Indiana in the early 1960s, travelers on Route 66 could smell the sweet condiment as they drove by.