America's Mother Road showcases rich history in Central Illinois
By Mary Ann Ford
Fiona and Peter Bannister recently traveled from their home in Oldham, England, to the United States to accomplish two goals.
Peter wanted to attend a Ham Radio festival in Dayton, Ohio, and they both (but especially Fiona) wanted to travel Route 66 from Bloomington to San Francisco.
“We’ve done bits and pieces (of Route 66), now we’re doing the whole thing,” said Peter.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Fiona. “We both like cars and motor bikes. When we come to America, we like to see offbeat things.”
The couple stopped at the Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66 Visitors Center in downtown Bloomington to pick up a map and a post card to send to their 8-year-old grandson, Austin Butterfield.
They also got their picture taken while sitting on the Abraham Lincoln bench out front.
Peter and Fiona planned to go to Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup shop in rural Shirley before heading to the Dixie Truckers Home restaurant in McLean.
The Bannisters are among more than 27,000 people – representing 50 countries and 25 states or communities -- who went to the Visitors Center during fiscal year 2016-17, said Joe McDonnell, manager of the center.
In many cases, Route 66 was the driving factor for the visit.
“This is our history; it (Route 66) represents America to them,” said McDonnell. “Route 66 was the open road; the embodiment of freedom, the epitome of Americana.”
About 40 miles of that famous Mother Road is in McLean County and towns along that stretch have worked to keep or restore some of the iconic structures that lined the road in its heyday – while also adding new venues for the Route 66 traveler to visit.
Here are a few to check out: (from north to south)
1002 Towanda Barnes Road, Towanda
If you’re traveling on Route 66 near Towanda and look to the east, you might catch a glimpse of this stately manor that sits far from the Mother Road. Long ago, there was a lane that took you to the home; now the only entrance is off Towanda Barnes Road behind the home.
It was built around 1869 by livestock dealer William Duncan as a symbol of his success. It was one of the first Italianate farm houses built in McLean County.
The family only lived in it until about 1876, when Duncan died. After that, it was occupied by a string of tenants who ignored maintenance and covered up key architectural details.
It was left vacant for quite some time and ended up on Illinois’ Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in 2007 because of its deteriorating condition.
It was purchased by a couple in 2008, and some restoration work was started but never finished. Current owners Randi and David Howell bought it in July 2014.
“We were living in Colorado and looking at buying something to restore on a smaller scale,” said Randi. “This house just jumped out.”
“We didn’t realize what the house meant to the community until we were here,” she said.
After numerous requests for tours, the couple opened the house for an event in May 2015.
“We had 3,000 people. It was overwhelming,” Randi said.
So was the amount of work that needed to be done to restore the mansion to its original grandeur.
The Howells set up a 501C3 non-profit organization and started organizing other fund-raising efforts. A Facebook post seeking plants for gardens around the house brought numerous responses.
“We developed 13 gardens the first year,” Randi said. “Eventually we want to do cooking classes, gardening classes, and host weddings.”
The couple hopes their ultimate goal to open it to the community on a regular basis will be accomplished next year.
In the meantime, the Howells will continue to host events throughout the year and are happy to provide private tours for groups of 10 or more ($10 per person).
Sprague’s Super Service and Ryburn Place
305 E. Pine St., Normal
This Tudor-style building was constructed in the late 1920s and operated as a service station until 1971. After going through a variety of owners and transitions, it was purchased by Terri Ryburn in 2006.
Ryburn, who lives in the original owner’s apartment on the second floor, successfully secured a variety of grants for a new roof, furnace, duct work and windows. During her ownership, Sprague’s Super Service also was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, was inducted into the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame, and was designated a local historic landmark.
In May 2016, the Town of Normal purchased the building as a tourist attraction and recently completed renovations.
Ryburn began operating a gift shop, Ryburn Place at Sprague’s Super Service, on the first floor in August 2017.
“I want it to be unique,” she said. “We’ll have some of what you expect along Route 66, but it’s heavily dominated by local artists’ work.”
A portion of the gift shop includes a visitors’ center. Ryburn is developing a map that allows travelers to easily get to Uptown Normal and Downtown Bloomington.
The site includes replica gas pumps at the location of the original pumps.
Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66 Visitors Center
200 N. Main St., Bloomington
The center is located on the ground floor of the McLean County Museum of History and not only has Route 66 highlights, but also includes information about Bloomington’s ties to President Abraham Lincoln.
Lighted panels give visitors a quick look at the early years along the Mother Road including:
- How thousands of travelers would camp each summer in Bloomington’s Forest Park in the 1920s and 30s.
Some of the more “modern” accommodations available in the 1940s and 50s including Streid’s Hotel and Prairie Traveler.
- Popular food options including a plate of “genuine Italian spaghetti” for 75 cents at Steve’s Café in Chenoa or a hand-ground steakburger and shake for about 21 cents at Gus Belt’s Steak ‘n Shake in Normal.
- Gas stations along the route including Sprague Service Station in Normal (which is being restored) and Quinn brothers’ Texaco station in Bloomington (which still stands and only recently closed).
The center also includes two videos: one, a walking tour of Lincoln sites with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator; another with a retired state police lieutenant telling stories of patrolling Route 66 in its heyday from 1958 to 1984.
“We are new to the (Route 66) family (the center opened in April of 2015),” said McDonnell, “but we are the only visitor center/gift shop along the way.”
The gift shop includes items from Steak ‘n Shake and other long-time Twin City businesses; local art; Abraham Lincoln items; and a variety of McLean County history books.
Visitors also can buy a bottle of Pepsi from a vintage soda pop machine.
McDonnell said the main mission of the center is “to help the Route 66 traveler make the most through Illinois but eventually all the way along (the highway).”
He is in the process of having a paper map made detailing the original Route 66.
The center is free and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup
Route 66, rural Shirley
You’ll find this small shop nestled within the Funks Grove forest that lines this stretch of Route 66. It specializes in the pure maple sirup made from the sap of the trees that surround it.
No, the sign isn’t wrong; historically, “sirup” referred to boiling sap to acquire the sticky sweet substance while “syrup” was used to describe adding sugar to fruit juice in order to produce soft drinks.
Debby and Mike Funk, descendants of the Funk Grove founders, are the current “caretakers.” They run the sirup production and the accompanying shop.
The shop is open from about late February until they run out of the sirup, typically August or September, said Debby.
Visitors who come early in the season can experience part of the sirup-making process (all detailed on their website www.funksmaplesirup.com).
Besides sirup, the shop sells maple cream (said to delicious on toast or pancakes), maple candy, and a variety of Route 66 memorabilia.
The guestbook by the door of the little shop shows its popularity. It’s filled with page after page after page of names of visitors from throughout the world including France, Australia, Wales, Canada, and Italy.
“In the summer, we get more Europeans than Americans,” Debby said.
Dixie Truckers Home
501 S. Main St., McLean
Established in 1928 in a small portion of a mechanics garage, this is the oldest truck stop in the United States.
The original café only had a single counter and six stools. Eventually, the café expanded into the entire garage and some cabins were built on the property so truckers would have a place to sleep.
In the early years, the Dixie offered free movies and other entertainment in the parking lot, drawing a host of people who spread out blankets to enjoy the festivities.
The original structure was destroyed by fire in 1965. The current building was completed about two years later and includes the original Dixie Truckers Home signs.
Round signs for gasoline types of a past era decorate the booths inside the popular restaurant and there is Route 66 memorabilia in parts of the adjoining convenience mart.
Route 66 Bike Trail
Driving isn’t the only way you can enjoy Route 66 through McLean County. The county – and communities along the way – have built stretches of a bicycle/walking trail, and more are planned.
Portions of the trail (listed below from north to south) even include the popular Burma Shave signs of the past.
- 1 miles in Chenoa
- 3 miles in Lexington, constructed with private funds from long-time community supporter, the late Ollie Myers.
- 7 miles from Towanda to Normal
- 8 miles from west Bloomington to south of Shirley (McLean County recently received funding for design engineering for another stretch of trail from south of Shirley to Funk’s Grove. It likely will be built in 2018.)
The summer months highlight the peak time for Route 66 travel in McLean County. See all BN has to offer on your trip through history.