State 6: Illinois - July 2, 2017
“Get your Kicks on Route 66”
Nate King Cole
We spent the previous day in the Cahokia, IL library catching up on computer work, and then ran some errands. Today were ready to begin exploring our 6th State, Illinois. While we are exploring Illinois, the only road we will be traveling on is Route 66. Why? Route 66 (aka Will Rodgers Highway, Main Street of America, or Mother Road) was one of our countries first long distance interstate roads, and undeniably the most famous road in the United States history. Established on November 11, 1926, Route 66 began in Chicago, Illinois, and continued south west ending in Santa Monica, CA covering a distance of over 2,448 miles. The construction of the Interstate Highway System led to the decline to Route 66, and it was removed from the United States Highway System in 1985. After being decommissioned, parts of Route 66 were absorbed into the state road system, and some segments access was blocked off and the road was abandoned. It is currently impossible to travel the entire length of Route 66 from start to finish. However, in recent years, Route 66 has experienced a resurgence, and sections of the road in states such as Illinois have been designated as National Scenic Byways and renamed Historic Route 66. In addition, a preservation effort is underway across America to preserve the few remaining original business, structures and road segments along the de-commissioned road and designate them as National Historic Sites. We will be visiting such landmarks as we continue on our cross country journey on the original cross county road and in the state of Illinois where Route 66 began.
Although route 66 begins in Chicago, and exits the state at the south border in Saint Louis, we will be traveling the Illinois segment from south to north since we are entering the state from Saint Louis. We discovered very early on our journey through Illinois, that it was very challenging to travel the state only via Route 66. Although, the route is denoted by signs that say “Historic Route 66”, these signs are far and few between. Take one wrong turn, and you find yourself driving in circles for an hour trying to get back on track. Ask us how we know! In addition, parts of the route are closed for construction, and one lane gravel roads were unable to accommodate Rosie’s derrière. To make things even more interesting, Route 66 was rerouted 3 times in Illinois during it's existence. Therefore, there are 3 different Historic Route 66's in Illinois, with each path denoted only by the date it was rerouted. Talk about a logistical debacle! All of the above rendered our GPS absolutely useless, and we decided the best way to navigate Route 66, was via a paper map that highlighted points of interest along the 3 routes. Many of the points of interest on the map were tourist traps, so we only visited few remaining sites that had historical significance and were original to Route 66.
Our very first stop along Historic Route 66 was in Collinsville, IL, but first a word from our sponsors:
“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls and children of all ages, gather around because it’s time for another exciting addition of Cross Country Couple's Roadside Attractions! This week’s episode is brought to you by Brooks Catsup. Today we are here in Collinsville, IL to view the world’s largest bottle of catsup. That’s right! In 1949, a 170-foot-tall water tower was built in the shape of a catsup bottle for none other than Brooks Catsup. But over the years, exposure to the elements began to take its toll on this iconic example of roadside Americana, and it was scheduled for demolition. In 1995, The catsup preservation group (I kid you not) mustered up the funds for restoration to its original splendor. In 2002 it was listed on the national record of historic places ensuring that future generation will be able to enjoy a 170 foot tall catsup bottle. And now back to your Cross County Couple blog post.
Next we headed to Mitchell, IL on Route 66 to the Luna Café which has a dark and infamous past. The Café was built in 1924 predating Route 66 by 2 years. Back in the days of catering to Route 66 travelers, The Luna Cafe operated a Café on the main floor, a gambling venue in the basement, and shall we say a “house of ill repute” upstairs. The original neon sign still stands to this day. It was rumored that when the cherries on the sign was lit, then the “girls” were in. The Luna Café was frequented by the gangsters of the day, including Al Capone when he traveled from Chicago to Saint Louis. The Luna Café is still open for business today, although I should mention that gambling and hookers are no longer on the menu.
The outside of the Cafe was a little more than rough around the edges, and normally I would not have patronized such an establishment if judging solely by first impressions. However, we were not going to pass the opportunity to visit one of the very few original Route 66 surviving businesses, and a place where Al Capone hung out. Lori and I held each other’s hand tight as we entered, we had absolutely no idea what we were walking into, but we both were expecting the absolute worst. Upon entering, the first thing we noticed was all of the walls from floor to ceiling were covered with Route 66 antiques, and other relics related to the café’s 96-year existence. There were old signs, license plates, risqué stickers, memorials to guests who had passed, and even a mini motorbike suspended from the ceiling over the bar. It was too much stimuli for the senses to take in all at once. I could have stood there and stared at the walls for days, and not have seen everything. There was an old pool table in the far left corner of the room, a wooden shuffleboard table to the immediate right, an antique juke box flanked the door we entered, and they all bared battle scars from decades of use.
We were immediately invited over to the bar to take a seat by the bartender who introduced herself as KK. She was a middle aged platinum blond with shoulder length hair, and of average build. She was warm and welcoming, but clearly had a hard edgy side if you gave her shit. Neither one of us were about to give her shit, so we did as we were told and sat down upon 2 lumpy swivel bar stools. KK took our drink orders, and then proceed to introduce us to the other 4 patrons sitting at the bar. To the right of us were two men KK introduced as “Big Bird”, and “Doc”. Sitting to our left was middle aged Hispanic couple whose names we missed, because Lori abruptly asked KK for clarification on which of the men on my right was Big Bird, and which one was Doc. The man sitting farthest from us raised his hand and said “Hello I am Doc”. Doc was a slender man who appeared in his mid 50’s. He wore a faded t-shirt, and jeans. He held a can of beer in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, and he was a man of few words. The man who sat next to him then shook my hand and said “I’m Big Bird”. Big Bird was also a middle aged man similar to Doc in his appearance, down to his preference of a cigarette and beer in opposing hands. He had long red hair and a full length matching beard. Unlike Doc, Big Bird was outgoing and full of stories, which he willfully shared. He was an interesting fellow, and had a kind nature. I would never have forgiven myself if I didn’t ask him if Big Bird was his real name. He let out a hearty laugh, and then a hearty cough, and said “no big bird is what they call me”. He then pointed out to a sign hanging on the wall of the bar which was a street sign that read Big Bird followed by 4 numbers. The story as he told it was a while back, he and two of his buddies saw the sign on a post in town and wanted it. No one had the balls to take it. The man soon was named Big Bird, graded a pair of bolt cutters, took that sign down, and then mounted it to the wall of the bar. From that moment on he was known as Big Bird!
We then noticed that each of the bars patrons had a piece of cake in front of them, so Lori asked KK whose birthday it was. KK responded it was Mr. Bill’s Birthday, and she baked a cake for him. She went on to say that he was a regular at the bar, but had not come in yet. Lori then asked KK why we were eating Mr. Bills Birthday cake if he had yet to arrive. To which KK responded “Oh he won’t care one bit, and I have another pan of brownies I cooked for him even if he does make a fuss”. KK then offered us a piece of Mr. Bills birthday cake, and we told KK, Lori and I would share a piece to save on calories. KK responded to “Hell with that,” and returned with 1 huge, and I mean huge piece, of homemade Chocolate Cake, which was absolutely delicious!
At that moment another man entered the bar, and. Big Bird then announced “Hey everyone, look Roosters here.” We knew “Rooster” must be someone important since, every one simultaneously turned in their bar stools to acknowledge his presence, us included. We later learned from KK that "Rooster" was the owner of the Luna Café for the past 19 years. He got the name Rooster because back in his day he was quite the ladies’ man, and always had 15 girls chasing him around. Rooster was an older, short, stocky man with gray hair and a matching gray beard. He wore a big smile and was warm and friendly.
After we finished our drinks, We paid our $3.25 tab for a Smirnoff, a cup of juice, a gigantic complimentary piece of homemade chocolate birthday cake, and left KK a tip triple the amount of the tab. We thanked her for her hospitality and memories. Everyone seemed sad we were leaving so soon, and we were sad to leave as well. However, there is no time to set down roots on this cross country trip. We got to keep moving on until our year long cross country trip in done, and we find a new state to call home. Just as we stood up to leave, another man walked into the bar, and KK announced “Mr. Bill is here”. We wished Mr. Bill a happy birthday on our way out the door. It was the least we could do since we had already eaten his birthday cake.
Although the Luna Café, has a dark and seedy past, Today it's not just a neighborhood bar, but it is a social outlet for locals. Everyone not only knows each other by name, but knows each other by a given nick name. They were in no way clicky, and were warm and welcoming to us strangers. We immediately felt as we were one of the gang, and had known them for years. It was one on the most unexpected and enjoyable moments of our trip so far. After we left the Luna Café, we found a Walmart in Springfield, IL and had a restful night’s sleep.