Waking in Wilmington
Last night we checked into Van Duyne’s Motel in Wilmington, Illinois to begin our Route 66 adventure to the Southwest United States. As I mentioned in the previous post, there were aspects of our room that made it a no-go for travelers with particular tastes. But the room was clean, the bed was comfortable enough and the shower was good and hot when we got up at 5:15am.
The Gemini Giant
At 6:30 I dropped our key in the lockbox and we headed to our first stop, the Gemini Giant right here in Wilmington. We saw him in the dark as we came into town last night, but the early morning light made him much easier to appreciate. He’s one of several statues manufactured by International Fiberglass in Venice, California to attract customers to all sorts of retail businesses across the country.
While the original made for The Paul Bunyan Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona was designed to hold an axe, so many held exhaust pipes and mufflers to advertise automotive dealers and shops that they became known as “Muffler Men”. The Gemini Giant has invited customers to stop at the Launching Pad diner since 1965. Sadly the restaurant closed in 2010 and still remains for sale today despite efforts to sell and reopen it.
Standard Oil Gas Station in Odell
Opened in 1932, the Standard Oil Gas Station in Odell, Illinois used a “house and canopy” design that welcomed customers to feel at home when caring for their automotive needs. The station hasn’t sold gasoline since the 1960s and fell into disuse and disrepair by the the 1970s. Preservation began in the 1990s and included efforts and funding from the Illinois Route 66 Association and the National Park Service. The gas station was restored to its former glory by the early 2000s.
We arrived at 7:30am, way before attendants opened for visitors. There was however a button we pressed that played an interpretive audio recording. Through the window we could see that the interior is as authentically restored as the exterior.
Atlanta’s Bunyon Giant
We didnt have to go far to find another Muffler Man. We stopped for the Bunyon Giant in Atlanta, Illinois. He originally towered over a restaurant on Route 66 in Cicero, Illinois called Bunyons. The name was intentionally misspelled by the owner to avoid trademark conflicts with Paul Bunyan’s Cafe in Flagstaff. And rather than an axe, this giant hold a hot dog. The Bunyon Giant relocated to Atlanta to keep it on Route 66 when the Bunyons restaurant closed in 2003.
Crossing the Mississippi—The Chain of Rocks Bridge
A private company built this as a Toll bridge back in 1929. The company thought they had purchased parcels of land directly across from each other, but they made a mistake! Worse yet, they couldn’t just build straight across because of water intakes and a navigation channel at this location. They solved the problem with a 22-degree bend about two thirds of the way across. Bypass US-66 was designated over this bridge in the late 1930s, as it passes well north of the city of St. Louis.
After I-270 opened on the adjacent New Chain of Rocks Bridge in 1966, this bridge closed to motor vehicles in 1970. Restoration efforts beginning in the late 1990s have kept it open for bicycles and pedestrians. We walked across to the bend from the Illinois side. The bridge is barely wide enough for two cars to pass! You also get a great view of the Mississippi River, the busy New Chain of Rocks Bridge, the water intakes, and the St. Louis skyline.
Crossing into Missouri and St. Louis
We drove down the Illinois side on roughly the alignment of old Business Route 66 into St. Louis and got on I-70 East to pick up I-44 West, which we’d take through the city and suburbs.
The Murals of Cuba, Missouri
Murals decorate the entire business district in Cuba, Missouri. They all tell stories about the small town’s history, including the glory days of Route 66 passing through. I will have more photos of these elaborate paintings.
We stopped for a quick late lunch at The FourWay, named for the four-way stop in the middle of town. This little diner specializes in Mediterranean cuisine. Their menu included salads that worked well on our dairy-free gluten-free diets once they removed a couple of items.
The Red Rocker, Fanning, Missouri
This giant rocking chair attracted the latest generation of Route 66 travelers to the Fanning 66 Outpost in Fanning, Missouri. The previous owners unfortunately closed the Outpost last year. However, I’m happy to say that in the time since I researched stops for this trip, the Outpost has reopened! It looks as if some aspects of its former glory have yet to be restored, but at least someone is taking advantage of that Red Rocker again. The Red Rocker was the largest rocking chair in the world until last year, when it was supplanted by a newcomer along the old National Road in Casey, Illinois.
The Devils Elbow Bridge
The segment of Old Route 66 in small Ozark town of Devils Elbow, Missouri, like many others, has actually been bypassed twice. The second time was of course I-44, which passes to the north. The first was in the 1940s by a four-lane highway that passes through Hooker Cut, one of the first uses of explosives to blast through a hillside to build a highway. Many modern engineering techniques still used today were pioneered on Hooker Cut. We saw evidence of that all along I-44 as it works its way through the Ozarks.
The original alignment of the highway passed through the town of Devils Elbow and over the Big Piney River on what is now called Teardrop Road. The historic through truss bridge received desperately needed renovation a few years ago and still carries traffic.
We had a long drive from Devils Elbow to our final stop for the day in Stroud, Oklahoma. We got off I-44 an exit before Stroud in Bristow so we could drive the old highway in. The sun went down and we were well into dusk now. Bristow had lots of old buildings in its business district with plenty of the cool neon signs that adorn Route 66.
Getting Off the Road in Stroud, Oklahoma
We arrived just after 8:30pm and we wondered if they were indeed open. Their sign wasn’t lit, and we couldn’t see any lights on! We pulled in and found the door…it was open! While things were busy in the kitchen, The dining room was totally quiet when we were seated. Sandy said they’d just had a big rush before we got there.
Stroud is much smaller but contains the iconic Rock Cafe. The owner, Dawn Welch, inspired the creation of the character Sally Carrera in Pixar’s Cars. They suffered a fire in 2009 that destroyed everything but the grill, affectionately named Betsy. Regulars come in and often just ask for “anything off Betsy”.
Before we exited I-44 at Bristow, I called ahead to make sure their kitchen would be open until they close at 9. Sandy there answered the phone, “Good Afternoon, Rock Cafe.” Seeing as it was well into evening at 7:45pm, I responded, “Oh good it’s still afternoon! I wanted to make sure you were still open when we arrived!”
What worked out perfectly for us with the Rock Cafe was their bunless bison burger! While we avoided the Heinz ketchup (high fructose corn syrup 😔) the burger with mustard on a bed of greens really hit the spot.
After dinner we drove a few blocks down the street to the Skyliner Motel. This old fashioned motor court harkens back to the heyday of Route 66. It’s survived the years pretty well and is receiving some TLC under a recent management change. Vic, the new owner/manager, asked what time we’d be leaving tomorrow and said he’d get up at 6am to brew a pot of fresh coffee for Becky!
I told her we would have missed them if we hadn’t been looking for them, since the sign was off. I also expressed my disappointment since I really wanted to get a photo of it. Sandy peeked through the window and told me she’d get it turned on for me…yay! I ran out and set up my tripod so I could get it before they closed.