July 8-11, 2016 we headed upstate to explore Route 66 in northern Illinois. We decided to drive Route 66 from Funks Grove north to the beginning of the Route in Chicago. Funks Grove is known as the mid point for the drive of Route 66 in Illinois.
Our first stop was at the Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup store. We have heard a lot of great things about the Sirup store and it lived up to its reputation. We made a great purchase at the store. We bought a book titled, “101 Sights and Attractions on Illinois Route 66,” by David Alan Badger. David’s book is a great travel guide filled with his wonderful drawings of the icons along Route 66 in Illinois. As I mentioned, we drove north out of Funks Grove up to Chicago, so I will share our experience starting with Funks Grove and moving north.
In Funks Grove there are several places to visit. Funks Grove is a wonderful place to start your Route 66 trek. The Funks Grove Maple Sirup store is a great starting point because it is located right along Route 66 and is the mid point for the route as it crosses through Illinois. The store has bottles of home made Maple Sirup for sale as well as lots of Route 66 souvenirs and memorabilia.
One of the gems we found in Funks Grove is the Sugar Grove Nature Center. Thanks to David Alan Badger’s guide we discovered this wonderful place. I am a lover of prairie restoration projects and the Sugar Grove Nature Center does a great job of bringing the natural splendor of the native Tallgrass prairie to the Route 66 traveler. Hummingbirds, native prairie plants and beautiful viewing barns are all worth the visit along with a wonderful visitor’s center.
The next stop as we headed north was the Old Shirley Train Depot in Funks Grove. It is hard to believe today that at one time this was a well-used train depot.
Route 66 runs right through the twin cities of Bloomington and Normal, Illinois. There are lots of beautiful old homes and buildings and a few newer businesses associated with the Mother Road. The Vrooman Mansion has been turned into a Bed and Breakfast destination and is an incredibly beautiful, and stately home.
We stopped by Gene’s Dairy Delight on Main Street in Bloomington and ate one of the best ice cream sundae’s I have ever had. The ice cream was more creamy than any I have tasted before. It is a wonderful place to stop at the end of a long day.
We sere driving through downtown Normal, Illinois while an art show was in full swing on our route. We visited the beautiful Normal Theater, which was surrounded by people and art exhibits. I think you can tell from the photo below that it is a grand old theater that has been painstakenly restored..
In Lexington they have done a great job of creating a 2.2 mile walking trail that commemorates Route 66. In fact, the trail is on an old portion of original Route 66.
Lesington also has a couple of other Route 66 landmarks. There are lots of old signs like the original Burma Shave signs that dot the town. One of them is the Route 66 vintage Lexington Arrow sign.
The other is a very unique original section of Route 66 that visitors can walk on called “Memory Lane.” It is a fantastic place to stop and stretch your legs and absorb some of the history that Route 66 brought to this part of Illinois.
The next stop on the route north was the town of Pontiac, Illinois. I have written about Pontiac before. I believe it is the best kept secret along Route 66. The Illinois Route 66 Museum is located in Pontiac and lots of time and energy has gone into decorating the town with Murals and historic memorabilia. It is worth a long stay to see all there is in Pontiac. We visited the Illinois Route 66 Museum to see the Land Yacht bus and the Volkswagen Van that Bob Waldemire lived in for many years. Bob was a resident artist on Route 66 and earned a Steinbeck award for his writing about the route.
There is a wonderful map of Illinois Route 66 painted on the wall inside the museum
There are some very nice murals painted on the outside of the buildings around Pontiac
Moving on north the Standard Oil Gas Station in Odell is a beautiful Route 66 artifact. It is full of Route 66 souvenirs and also has a very nice restored glass gasoline pump.
Heading north the town of Dwight has several icons worth exploring. The old windmill behind the Oughton Carriage House is beautiful, and the restored Ambler-Becker Texaco Station is incredible. Both are well worth the look.
Gardner, Illinois has two of the more unusual attractions along Illinois Route 66. The first on is the Horse-Drawn Streetcar Diner, which arrived in Gardner in 1932.
The other attraction is the Two-Cell Jail located on the same property as the Horse-Drawn Streetcar DIner.
On the north edge of Gardner is the Polka Dot Diner, which looks like a great Drive In Diner to grab a bit to eat.
Wilmington is another of my favorite places on Illinois Route 66. The beautiful Marr Theater is located in downtown.
Wilmington has lots of Route 66 material culture icons on the highway, but it also has a wonderful prairie restoration project nearby. I mentioned that I love prairies and Wilmington has one of the best restored Tallgrass prairies I have seen. The MIdewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a wonderful place to explore nature. The Department of Defense used to man a bomb arsenal here during World War II. They built and stored bombs on site. After the DoD was finished with the site it was transferred to the US Forest Service and in 1996 Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established by Congress. Please top in at the visitor’s center. It is a magical place.
That brings us to the Chicagoland area with the first stop in Joliet. There is a lot to see in Joliet. The Rialto Square Theater is an incredible theater.
Joliet has a very nice Union Station located in downtown.
There is a nice Route 66 Diner in Joliet
Joliet has a wonderful Route 66 Museum with lots of souvenirs inside
As you cross over the Des Plaines River there is a small Route 66 Park and the Rich and Creamy Ice Cream Shop both along Route 66. The park has an exhibit telling you where you can see the historic gas pumps around Joliet.
Heading north into Romeoville is the White Fence Farm Restaurant. It looks like a great place to take the family to enjoy a fantastic meal.
One of the big icons along Illinois Route 66 is a bit north in Willowbrook. Del Rhea’s Chicken Basket began in the 1930s as an old gas station lunch counter. Their fried chicken is legendary.
The Wolf’s Head Restaurant in Indian Head is another place to stop and enjoy the food.
The town of Berwyn hosts a great Route 66 attraction. Henry’s Restaurant is an iconic stop on Route 66 with its big hot dog sign out front. It is located right on Route 66 (Ogden Blvd) in Berwyn.
One of the big disappointments for me along Route 66 was the Castle Car Wash in Cicero. What was once a proud and iconic Route 66 attraction has now fallen into disrepair. This attraction could use some TLC. Hopefully, someone will come along and take care of it.
Nearing the end of the drive north we stopped at Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant in downtown Chicago. This restaurant is an iconic diner. Stop and enjoy the food and the service.
Downtown Chicago has the last three items on our Route 66 icon list. The first is the Route 66 Begins here sign located at the intersection of Adam St and South Michigan Ave.
The second is the historic Chicago Water Tower on North Michigan Ave. It is beautiful and seems to stick out against the modern Chicago skyline.
The final icon and the mark of the beginning of Route 66 is Buckingham fountain in Mellinnium Park on Lake Michigan. The beautiful fouintain is a great marker for starting your trip.
It was a fun trip. We plan to finish the south half of Illinois route 66 later this summer.