Historic Route 66
When most people think of Route 66, neon signs, diners and convertibles come to mind. While all of these features are true, there is a whole other aspect to the Mother Road that most people tend to overlook: its historical significance in American culture. Constructed in 1926, it was the first road that made travel from the Midwest to the West Coast faster and a more realistic possibility than ever before. Officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985, portions of the road that passed through Illinois, Missouri and New Mexico have been designated a National Scenic Byway with the official name of “Historic Route 66.” The Mother Road runs through both the City of Bloomington and the Town of Normal in McLean County.
The result of a partnership between the Illinois Office of Tourism, the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the McLean County Museum of History, the County of McLean and the Public Building Commission of McLean, the Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66 Visitor Center is a must-see stop for Abraham Lincoln and Route 66 enthusiasts. Located on the ground floor of the McLean County Museum of History, one wing is dedicated to Route 66, and one wing is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Visitors can compare the travels of Abraham Lincoln with those of tourists and automobilists during the golden era of Route 66. The exhibits cover stories from dining to lodging and travel. Interactive exhibits, video monitors, a gift shop and visitor information are also included in the center.
Despite the fact that large sections of Route 66 no longer exist, many of its attractions remain. The golden era of Route 66 may be gone, but what’s left is a piece of old-school Americana, filled with everything from burger joints to historic landmarks. McLean County is home to several of these, including Dead Man’s Curve, a dangerous curve on the original Route 66 where many accidents took place, and the Geographical Journey Parkway, a 1.6 mile stretch where visitors can take a walking tour with educational kiosks. The most historical attraction regarding Route 66 in McLean County is the Sprague Super Service Station, which is the largest of three remaining two-story fuel station buildings still located on Route 66. Built in 1931, it housed a café, a gas station and a garage. The building has been approved by the Illinois Preservation Agency and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to the Route 66 historical landmarks, McLean County has many attractions that sit along the Mother Road that are waiting to be explored. To this day, Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup remains a favorite stop among Route 66 travelers. Established in 1891, it continues to produce an average of 2,000 gallons of sirup each season. Funks Grove has expanded its market beyond sirup to include maple cream, cookbooks and Route 66 memorabilia. Funks Grove is the largest remaining intact prairie grove in Illinois, with over 1,000 acres of trails through the prairie and forest. Since 2004, the Sugar Grove Nature Center has provided a place where visitors can experience and enjoy the environment and the history of Funks Grove. Sugar Grove Nature Center is especially dedicated to providing nature education to children. In Imagination Grove, kids can hunt for arrowheads, dig for fossils and go zip lining.
Route 66 is famous for its classic cuisine, and McLean County offers plenty of options for visitors to choose from. On Main Street in Bloomington, the site of the original Steak ‘n Shake, which was founded in 1934, is now a Monical’s Pizza. In Downtown Bloomington, Lucca Grill is considered the “melting pot” of the Twin Cities. Established by the Baldini brothers in 1936, it served the first pizza in Central Illinois. Uncle Vait’s Pizza, previously Kelly’s on 66, serves their famous pizza to travelers and locals alike in a renovated, old Route 66 gas station in Lexington. Kicks Bar and Grill in Towanda allows visitors to kick back and enjoy some quintessential Route 66 road food, including burgers and fried chicken. Of course, no Route 66 adventure would be complete without some delicious dessert. Located on South Main Street in Bloomington, Gene’s Ice Cream is widely renowned for their soft-serve cones which serve as the perfect, cool treat after exploring the Mother Road on a hot summer day. If you want a touch of salt to go with your sweet tooth, look no further then BEER NUTS. Bloomington is the only city in the world where Beer Nuts are made. The company produces different types of nuts covered with a sweet and salty glaze.
History is happening in McLean County, and we urge you to come and be a part of it! Check out our Historical Route 66 Tour here.