Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum
The best thing that ever happened to Route 66 was that it died.
In 1985 the Mother Road was banished from the roster of U.S. highways. It was still there, but the government no longer acknowledged its existence. That effectively killed Route 66, but it also unexpectedly revived people's interest in it. Route 66 has flourished in its afterlife, a luxury usually only enjoyed by gods and zombies.
A good place to indulge in Route 66's resurrection is the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, the first big Mother Road aggregate attraction heading west out of Chicago. Opened in 2004, its exhibits fill a couple of bays in Pontiac's old firehouse (the rest of the building houses a military museum, the old city jail, and antique shops). Size-wise it seems appropriate for a museum devoted to one road in one state. Only 301 of the highway's 2448 miles are in Illinois.
"People will come in and they'll read everything. Everything. They'll be here for hours," said museum guide Rose Geralds. Route 66 diehards include nostalgia buffs, people too young to have been alive when the road existed, and international tourists who are as thrilled to be driving Route 66 as they would be riding the Chisholm Trail. One entry in the museum's guest book is from an Iraqi visitor from Fallujah: "Thanks for liberating me."
Many of the museum's exhibits recall vanished Illinois Route 66 businesses, such as the booths from the world's first Steak and Shake, which closed in the 1990s. A sign next to them says that Chester Henry, a member of the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and a man of foresight, took the booths "and saved them for the future museum." According to Rose, the booths have been so popular with sitting visitors that the museum has had to repair the upholstery.
The Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates Route 66 fandom as well as the road. A lithograph on one wall is by "postmark artist" Ken Turmel, who visited every post office on Route 66 and had them stamp his hand-drawn Route 66 map (Ken printed 2,448 copies to sell in 1997, and according to his web site he has about 1,500 left). Outside, on the museum's wall, is the world's largest mural of a Route 66 sign. In front of it is a small roadway of original Route 66 pavement bricks, saved by the town and re-laid here. Visitors are encouraged to park their vehicles on this hallowed ground and snap souvenir photos. "Cars, motorcycles, a covered wagon, a guy on stilts..." said Ellie Alexander, Pontiac's tourism director, listing the various conveyances that have posed.
The museum's most treasured items are the VW hippie van and "School Bus Road Yacht" of the late Bob Waldmire, who was the Johnny Appleseed of Route 66's revival (Bob ran the Hackberry General Store and his family runs the Cozy Dog Drive In, both Route 66 icons). For decades Bob drove the highway, drew whimsical sketches of what he saw, and sowed seeds of nostalgia that eventually blossomed into places like the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum. According to one story, Bob's personal stash of pot was kept in two boxes slung under the VW van -- still visible in the museum -- and he'd warn off curious police by telling them the boxes were nests for his snakes.
"He was a hippie," Rose acknowledged. "But he was a very nice man."
For Route 66 pilgrims, a walk through the Waldmire Road Yacht is a highlight not only of the museum, but of their entire Mother Road odyssey. They can touch Bob's rocking chair made of branches, examine his rock collection, thumb through his Jethro Tull vinyl records, admire his hand-built sauna and toilet. It's the free-spirited cloister of a loveable hobo, and many visitors probably wish that they could pack up and spend their days rambling the Mother Road just like Bob.
"People come here from overseas," said Ellie. "And they'll ask me Route 66 questions about things outside of Illinois, and I'll say, 'I'm sorry, I've never been outside of Illinois on Route 66.'" Ellie widened her eyes in imitation. "They're amazed! They'll say, 'And you live here? How could that be?'"