It's fitting that Route 66 starts in Chicago. The city is rich in history and culture, and was roaring in 1926 when the route was originally built. But once the road departs the Windy City, the vibe quickly morphs into that Midwestern, Americana kitsch that's often associated with the Mother Road. Small towns and offbeat cities like Springfield provide tons of roadside oddities, often themed around the state's most famous former resident: President Abraham Lincoln. Add in some of the most mouth-watering grub you'll find anywhere on Route 66, and you've got an impactful start to an iconic road trip.
There's no better place to fuel up for an epic road trip than at Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket. A longtime Route 66 favorite, it's been open since the 1930s. It started off as a lunch counter at a roadside gas station, but the chicken dinners served up were so good, the owner turned the car repair bays into a dining room. Soon, more land was purchased and a new restaurant was built in 1946. It struggled to survive once the new highway bypassed the restaurant, then became Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket in the 1960s when Dell bought it with his wife renewing interest in the eatery. Today, the restaurant offers burgers, seafood, salads, desserts, and more in addition to the chicken, but nothing beats the classic Chicken Dinner. If you want to get really old-school, there are fried chicken gizzards and livers, too.
The 28-foot-tall Gemini Giant is one of the first Muffler Men you'll encounter on the Route, and while it's one of many, it's the only astronaut-themed giant (that we know of, anyway). He stands guard over The Launching Pad, a diner and gift shop recently renovated and reopened. The love and dedication put into bringing the Launching Pad back to life is a perfect example of what makes Route 66 so special. Plus, the food is fresh, delicious, and homemade. Or, if you aren't hungry, cool off with a drink or some ice cream. The gift shop sells super unique merch. Is there a better souvenir for the Illinois leg than a Gemini Giant bobblehead? We think not.
A handful of old-school filling stations line the route, making perfect photo ops. In Dwight, Illinois, there's Ambler's Texaco Gas Station. The cottage-style look of the station might strike modern-day travelers as unusual, but it was a common look for service stations along Route 66, as you'll see. It was built in 1933 by Jack Shore, but gets its name from its most prolific caretaker, Basil "Tubby" Ambler, who served countless travelers between 1938 and 1966. It's been beautifully maintained and serves as a welcome station today, but sold gas until nearly the turn of the 21st century, making it one of the Route's longest running service stations.
There are more than a few Route 66 museums along the way, including the Illinois Rt. 66 Museum in Pontiac. It boasts thousands of artifacts and tons of information on the towns and iconic businesses along the Land of Lincoln's portion of the Mother Road. There are photographs, vintage cars and license plates, a re-created service station, maps, and plenty more items to see. Pro tip: The first floor has most of the Route 66 memorabilia, and the upper floors feature objects related to local and military history. Leave yourself plenty of time to explore if you're the type to get caught up in interesting exhibits and displays.
Maple syrup and Route 66 might not immediately be associated together, but either way, Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup is undeniably a Route 66 icon, and a local gem in its own right. It's been open since the 19th century, after all. On a visit here, you'll learn how sap from sugar maple trees gets turned into sticky sweet maple sirup... and why Funks spells "sirup" the old-fashioned way. Sample the wares, grab a bottle of sirup to go, and enjoy the quiet, shady, farm-like setting for a bit. Don't leave without buying some maple sugar candy to enjoy on the road.
The next Muffler Man you'll encounter is the famed Bunyon With A Hot Dog in Atlanta, IL. Almost all of these Muffler Men figures, which came from International Fiberglass in Venice, CA, have a body formed from the same mold (arms out, right hand up, left hand down), and subtle tweaks have been made; heads and the object in their hands could be swapped in or out, and different clothes could be painted on. The original mold was for a Paul Bunyan figure holding an axe, meant for a Route 66 cafe in Flagstaff, but the statues came to be known as "Muffler Men" from the many versions used to advertise mechanics. In the case of Hot Dog Bunyon, a Paul Bunyan figure was purchased for a Route 66 restaurant in Cicero called "Bunyons" (purposefully misspelled for trademark reasons). Bunyon's also put a ginormous hot dog in his hands instead of the axe, which was totally original. Eventually, the statue was moved to its current location in Atlanta, but the name "Bunyon" stuck.
It makes complete sense that the first Lincoln-themed bit of roadside kitsch you'll encounter in Illinois is in a town called Lincoln. It's known as the Watermelon Lincoln Monument, and there's a bit of local lore behind it. As the story goes, in 1853, Abe Lincoln arrived in town to lead a ceremony celebrating its founding. He paid a farmer to bring in a wagonful of watermelons, which he handed out to attendees, and christened the railroad tracks with watermelon juice. The tale is commemorated by a watermelon statue and an interpretive sign with info on Lincoln's visit. It's a small, weird little roadside stop, but one that highlights the fact that every Route 66 town has its own history.
The next Lincoln-themed stop is the Railsplitter Covered Wagon, recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest covered wagon in the world. It stands a whopping 25 feet tall, and atop it sits a 12-foot-tall Honest Abe reading a law book. It was started by Illinois resident David Bentley in 2001 to kill time while he recovered from surgery, and was completed in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Route 66. It was moved to Lincoln in 2007, and though it has weathered storms, the locals in Lincoln take excellent care of their Railsplitter Covered Wagon statue.
Springfield is a great place to take a day off from driving, with its many Honest Abe-themed attractions, including Lincoln's tomb, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, among others. Comfort Suites Springfield is the perfect home base for your rest day. It's conveniently located close to all of Springfield's Abe Lincoln attractions, and has awesome amenities. You'll be treated to free WiFi, free parking, a free hot breakfast, and an indoor heated pool during a stay here. And, since it's a Comfort Suites, the rooms are spacious, the beds are cozy, and the service is top notch. Click here to book your stay.
On your way out of Springfield, a stop at the Cozy Dog Drive-In is required. This is where, allegedly, the corn dog on a stick was invented. Ed Waldmire originally started selling what he called "crusty curs" at the USO club and base PX, where he served in the military, and when he returned to Springfield in 1946, he wanted to continue selling them. His wife Virginia convinced him that civilians might not find the name "crusty cur" appealing, so the Cozy Dog was born. Ed sold hem for 15 cents apiece at the Illinois State Fair, and they were an instant hit. He soon opened two stands, and eventually Cozy Dog moved to its current drive-in and sit down counter location just north of the original. It remains a Route 66 icon and local favorite to this day.
Nothing brings back those fuzzy, nostalgic feelings quite like a drive-in movie theater. While they're fast becoming a dying breed, there are a few that have managed to survive along Route 66, likely saved by travelers along the Mother Road. The Sky View Drive-In in Litchfield is the last operating drive-in on Illinois's leg of Route 66. It's been operating since 1950, which is no small feat for a seasonal drive-in theater. On Friday and Saturday nights, the owners play double features of new releases, and on Sundays, they screen classic movies like "Smokey and the Bandit" or "The Sound of Music." And save room for popcorn and a soda from the concession stand; buying snacks from the theater is the best way to help support local drive-ins.
Also in Litchfield is the Ariston Cafe, which happens to be one of the oldest restaurants along the Route. It was opened in 1924 in Carlinville by a Greek immigrant named Pete Adam, and moved to Litchfield five years later. The current Litchfield location has been open since 1935. It was run by the Adam family until 2018, when it was sold to two local Litchfield couples who continue to keep the legend alive. Back in 1938, the Adam Family offered diners porterhouse steak at 85 cents, bacon and eggs or a BLT for a quarter, and a glass of Budweiser for 15 cents. Though the prices have changed, the home-style cooking and friendly service hasn't. Make a point to stop by the stellar salad bar; it's a standout, and the prime rib and pork tenderloin are incredibly popular as well.
Henry's Rabbit Ranch is a newer Route 66 attraction, opened by Rich Henry after a trip down the Mother Road in the 1990s. Despite the fact that it's a more recent opening, it has quickly become an icon and was even inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame. The ranch itself is a quirky mish-mash of incredibly useful info, souvenirs, Route 66 and trucking memorabilia, old cars, adorable rabbits, and rabbit-themed kitsch. The rabbits came from Henry's daughter, who adopted two rabbits that quickly multiplied. Henry fell in love and decided to incorporate them into the Route 66 tourist information center he planned to open. Make sure to leave some time to explore the grounds, meet the rabbits, and pose for pictures with the Cadillac Ranch-style VW Rabbits and the giant fiberglass jackrabbit on the property.
If the world's largest covered wagon didn't impress you, the World's Largest Catsup Bottle might. It stands 170 feet tall... and is actually a water tower. It was built in 1949 as an ad for the G.S. Suppiger catsup bottling plant, who packaged Brooks old original rich & tangy catsup. In the 1990s, the Catsup Bottle's fate was thrown into peril, until it was saved through the hard work and dedication of the Catsup Bottle Preservation Group. It was even restored, and in 2002, was named to the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring that it would be protected and preserved for generations.
Luna Cafe, opened in 1924, actually predates Route 66 by two years, and its seedy history is the stuff of legend. The first floor was a bar, and the basement allegedly housed an illegal gambling operation. There was also a neon cherry sign in the bar that, when lit, meant that eagerly waiting gangsters could head upstairs, where local ladies would provide "entertainment." It was a favorite hangout of Al Capone, who would drive down the Route from Chicago to drink with his buddies in the area. Today, it's a great place to mingle with the locals that serves no-frills drinks and grub. Or, just stop by to admire the super-old, super-gorgeous neon sign.
Illinois's unique history and quirky personality really shine through on its leg of Route 66. Icons like Al Capone and Abe Lincoln appear, famous eateries claim Illinois as their home, and Muffler Men line the road. The best part is that no matter if you're visiting a newly-opened stop or an attraction that has been around for decades, you'll sense the pride and passion Illinoisans have for their section of the Mother Road.
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