Get your kicks on Route 66

The 12th annual Red Carpet Corridor Festival runs Saturday between Joliet and Towanda

 (Wikimedia Commons/Susan Johnson)

(Wikimedia Commons/Susan Johnson)

By Ted Cox

Get your kicks on Route 66 this Saturday as the 12th annual Red Carpet Corridor Festival takes place in 13 communities along the 90-mile stretch of “the most famous road in America” between Joliet and Towanda.

Yes, Route 66 still exists, if largely as a memory of what it once was. In fact, it’s enjoying something of a sustained revival.

Created in 1926 when the U.S. numbered highway system was adopted, Route 66 wound more than 2,000 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. 

Towns along the way were immortalized by Bobby Troup’s 1946 classic song, written from a road trip he and his wife took to Southern California, where he planned to launch his career as a songwriter: “Well it goes from St. Lou-ie, down to Missouri. Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty. You’ll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico. Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona, Kingsman, Barstow, San Bernadino” and ultimately right onto the Santa Monica pier in Southern California.

The song was popularized in cover versions by Nat “King” Cole and Chuck Berry, who of course inspired the Rolling Stones to follow suit.

But when the U.S. Interstate Highway System was adopted by President Eisenhower’s administration in the ‘50s, it meant a slow death for many of those small towns along the way, particularly alongside I-55 in Illinois, which buzzed along parallel to the old Route 66 but away from the town centers that once welcomed tourists — places like the Launching Pad Drive-In in Wilmington, with its Gemini Giant statue.

Gemini_Giant_on_66.jpg

The Gemini Giant at the Launching Pad Drive-In in Wilmington

(Wikimedia Commons)

The good news is that celebrating the old Route 66 has led to something of a recovery in those small towns, which is what Saturday’s Red Carpet Corridor Fest is all about. Route 66 was declared a National Scenic Byway in 2005, and the fest soon followed.

"It's sort of an unofficial kickoff to the tourist season," said Liz Vincent, of Pontiac's Tourism Department. "It's not a direct tour. You can stop and go as much as you want."

And there’s recent good news, in that late last year Tully Garrett and Holly Baker bought the Launching Pad, which had closed in 2010. Plans to reopen have taken longer than expected — as restaurants always do — but it’s still expected to be back in business next year.

The other towns along the way on Saturday don’t exactly trip off the tongue the way the more western cities do in Troup’s classic, but they all have something in store to celebrate Route 66, with the full day’s events scheduled to run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"Each town does have a collectible giveaway," Vincent said. "So each town does something a little bit different, and each town gives a little taste about what these towns have to offer."

"It's typically the busiest weekend we have here in Pontiac," said Ellie Alexander, director of tourism. The town is a center of the fest, as it's home to the Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum, which originated as a display at a local truck stop and has grown since it moved into an old firehouse at 110 W. Howard St.

According to Alexander, annual attendance has grown from 2,000 to 25,000, with exhibits displayed in a "linear" order tracing the historic highway's course from Chicago to St. Louis.

Here's a quick overview of the fest events in order from Joliet to Towanda.

Joliet: The original intersection of Route 66 and Route 30, Lincoln Highway, is at Chicago and Cass streets. There’s a Historical Museum pop-up store at Old Joliet Prison Park, 1125 N. Collins St. The Route 66 Raceway is open 9-3, entrance from Gate 11 off Route 53 (the historic Route 66).

Elwood: The Village Hall is the center of events from 9-4 at 401 E. Mississippi Ave. You can also visit the nearby Lincoln National Cemetery.

Wilmington: Look for the Gemini Giant at 810 E. Baltimore St., but there will also be a flea market on Water Street until 4. Nelly’s Restaurant will be giving out a commemorative item while they last, and selling bison burgers.

Braidwood: The Historical Society Museum, 111 N. Center St. on the old Route 66, has live music from noon to 3.

Godley: The Route 66 Mining Museum will have a commemorative giveaway.

Braceville: The Village Office parking lot, at Mitchell and Route 53, has a commemorative.

Gardner: Scapegoats Car Show runs from 8-5 in the Depot Street parking lot, while the Church of Hope Rock-a-Thon takes place at the Gazebo.

Dwight: The seventh annual Route 66 Smoke Out BBQ Contest takes place Friday and Saturday at Guardian Angel Bassett Rescue Park, 413 W. Waupansie St.

Odell: The historic 1932 Standard Oil Gas Station on Route 66 gives out souvenirs, with others for sale.

Pontiac: Home of the Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum, open from 9-5, it will also play host to a Bells in Motion concert at the Eagles Theater, 319 N. Plum St., to close out the day’s events at 7. Tickets are $10, $20 for a family, but those who collect all 13 commemorative giveaways get prices reduced to $6 a person, $12 a family.

Chenoa: There’s a flea market, and the Women’s Club is sponsoring garage sales across the town both Friday and Saturday.

Lexington: Live music and a petting zoo are on Main Street, and a display of vintage cars and trucks.

Towanda: A car show with a disc jockey runs from noon to 4, and there will be a “Field of Dreams” baseball game between the Springfield Long 9 and the Bloomington Prairie Chickens at 2:15 at the Od Rugged Barn, 18808 N. 2000 E. Road.

If you can’t find some kicks somewhere along that stretch of Route 66 on Saturday, you just aren’t trying.

"It's a very popular road trip for people," Alexander said. "And after the long winter I expect we're probably going to have the largest crowd we've ever had."

Ted Cox