Route 66 redux

Classic cars and their drivers celebrate 'Most Famous Road in America' from Joliet to Towanda

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By Ted Cox

It seemed sometimes Saturday as if everyone in Illinois who owns a classic car was out on the road for the Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor Festival.

“It’s a throwback, particularly to the era of Route 66 post-World War II,” said John Willie, curator of the Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac. He explained the fest’s appeal as “an open road, being free from anywhere else.”

That spirit was on display, epitomized by the old, sleek, classic Thunderbirds,  Mustangs, and much older cars tooling down the roads that used to make up Route 66, and stopping now and then just to invite gawkers.

“An old guy, it brings back memories,” said Dan Spooner, of Streamwood, as he prepared to hit the road again from a Pontiac parking lot along with a small caravan of compadres. Spooner was driving a restored ’34 Ford Coupe he’d bought at auction 15 years ago — a beautiful car. “It takes a lot of work, though,” he added.

With temperatures climbing into the 80s all the way along the fest from Joliet down to Towanda, convertibles were especially in their element.

“It draws all us old people out here to drive around and go see these old buildings and have something to eat and drive back home,” said Frank Lech, of Pingree Grove, enjoying the day along with his wife, Candace, in the 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible they drove to their wedding reception.

“When I got out of college and didn’t have to worry about the draft anymore, I bought this car brand spankin’ new,” Lech said.

Each of the 13 towns along the festival route held its own sort of event, to celebrate the old road immortalized in Bobby Troup’s 1946 song, later covered by Nat “King” Cole, Chuck Berry, and the Rolling Stones, to name just a few. The fest also drew motorists back to the small communities that once gloried in their spots along Route 66, only to be all but left behind when Interstate 55 went through.

The fest is so spread out it's hard to count those who enjoyed it, but it's safe to say it numbered in the thousands.

The distinctive stops and drive-ins of the postwar era along Route 66 are now immortalized with spots in the Hall of Fame. “Generally speaking, it’s businesses and individuals who made a contribution to travelers along the main road,” said Wille, a history teacher in Dwight for 32 years before he became curator. That includes places like the White Fence Farm restaurant in Romeoville.

One of those key individuals, he added, was Bob Waldmire, a local “hippie artist” whose parents owned the Cozy Dog Drive-In on Route 66 in Springfield, where his father was credited with being one of the creators of the corn dog. “He was a free spirit,” Wille said of Waldmire, who made a name for himself doing bird’s-eye drawings of local college towns like Champaign and Bloomington-Normal to promote local businesses.

“When they de-commissioned Route 66, he decided he wanted to preserve Route 66 the only way he knew how — through his artwork,” Wille said.

Waldmire romanticized the road, in prolonged stays both in Illinois and Arizona, and tied it to nature through the use of rocks and snakes in his work. He really helped inspire the modern-day fondness for what’s been lost along the old Route 66.

 Bob Waldmire designed this Route 66 mural in Pontiac as his last commission. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Bob Waldmire designed this Route 66 mural in Pontiac as his last commission. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Waldmire died in 2009, shortly after accepting what turned out to be his last commission: a wall mural in Pontiac tracing the full course of Route 66. It was completed by friends and family working from his design and still stands there, not far from a converted “bus yacht” he built on top of the frame of an old school bus, now parked just outside the Pontiac museum complex in a converted firehouse.

Inside the museum, though, is perhaps what he’ll be remembered for in the future: a 1972 Volkswagen bus he customized, and that later served as inspiration for the character of Fillmore in the Pixar animated movie “Cars.” Wille said the museum set a record for attendance last year with 25,000 visitors, and “probably close to half of them were from someplace other than the United States,” drawn by that movie or a piece Scottish comedian Billy Connolly did on Waldmire and the museum for British TV.

It was glorious day all up and down the road Saturday, with each town celebrating in its own way. There was a parade with fire trucks and Mustangs in Lexington, which also turned out to be the first public event for the new McLean County chapter of the national organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Some 135 people turned out for their first meeting, and about a dozen of those marched in the Lexington parade, in part to promote their Wear Orange event set for June 2 at White Oak Park in Bloomington to mark National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

 A red Mustang leads the way in Lexington's Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor parade. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

A red Mustang leads the way in Lexington's Route 66 Red Carpet Corridor parade. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“I don’t remember ever marching in a parade,” said Karen Irvin, of Bloomington, spokesperson for the local Wear Orange event. She added that Moms Demand Action had seen a 40 percent increase in Illinois organizations being formed just since the Parkland, Fla., shooting earlier this year.

Going from northeast to southwest, the corridor festival ended at Towanda's Duncan Manor, a wonderful Italianate mansion constructed by cattle rancher William Duncan starting immediately after the Civil War in 1866. He died in 1876, and by 1900 it had become a rental property as the surrounding landscape was sold for farmland. At the end of the 20th century, it went vacant for 20 years before Randi Howell and her husband, David, bought it four years ago.

“When we first got it, it was just a shell,” Howell said. “We just kind of camped out.”

Yet the Howells went about restoring it, and started inviting locals out to an annual spring open house to view the progress. The first open house attracted 3,000 visitors, and she said since then they’ve settled into about 1,500 visitors a year, now as part of the Towanda stop on the Red Carpet Corridor Festival.

“It works out beautifully,” she said. “I love it.”

 Duncan Manor in Towanda (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Duncan Manor in Towanda (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Ted Cox