Illinois Road Rally: Driving With Giants
Cloud-kissing vistas. The real Abe Lincoln. And one very famous corn dog. After nearly 100 years, Route 66 has never looked better.
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Along America's Mother Road, one question sets Route 66 warriors apart from the newbies: Do you know the Muﬄer Men? And for real street cred, have you stood in their shadows? A case could be made that these towering ﬁgures—standing 15 to 30 feet tall in painted ﬁberglass glory—inspired the original road trip photo op.
During Route 66’s heyday in the ’60s, more than 100 of these themed statues wielded giant mufflers (or axes, a rocket and other props). They lured travelers between Chicago and Los Angeles. Fewer than 10 Muffler Men remain on the route today. But four of them are in Illinois.
If that’s not a call to a quest, what is? So we set out to ﬁnd them, partnering with the Illinois Office of Tourism for a four-day road trip from the Windy City to the Mississippi, via the capital, Springﬁeld. We sneaked in a few detours but mostly followed Route 66, where history, Americana and a spirit of entrepreneurship still thrive—and giants loom large (muffler or not) around every turn.
With bellies full of Dell Rhea's fried chicken, we put Chicago's skyline in our rearview mirror and prepared to do some hard time. Well, hard-ish. Joliet’s retired prison was once the largest in the U.S. It’s had cameos in The Blues Brothers movie, plus Empire, Prison Break and other TV shows. Now you can book a tour inside.
“The prisoners quarried all this limestone from across the street and built these walls around themselves,” says Mary Villaﬂor, with the Joliet Area Historical Museum. The prison shut down in 2002 and reopened for tours in 2018, after crews scrubbed out more than 900 graffiti tags. But plenty of others remain in the looming building. The street art is considered part of the property’s derelict history.
“It was designed to scare the hell out of you, from the inside and the outside,” says Greg Peerbolte, tour guide and executive director for the museum. Holding cell phone lights, we shuffled down echoing corridors, below leaky roofs and into solitary conﬁnement rooms. We even slipped inside an original cell, measuring 4x7 feet for two inmates and a bunk bed.
Back on the road, we sped toward sunlight that felt extra bright —until a spaceman stopped us in our tracks. Cameras out for our ﬁrst Muffler Man. Wallets out for the bobblehead version to stick on the dash.
Day One Highlights
Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket Once a gas station snack, the fried chicken recipe here is more than years old.
Old Joliet Prison Explore a shuttered prison that opened before the Civil War and once held “Baby Face” Nelson.
Launching Pad Home to Gemini Giant. Newly renovated roadside cafe with vegan soft serve and healthy items on a classic menu (plus decadent pie milkshakes).
August Hill Winery Sleek interior and a patio for snacks and local wine—some shimmering in the bottle with drinkable glitter.
Tangled Roots Brewing and The Lone Buffalo Exceptional beer, yes. Plus industrial-chic style, a fab dinner menu and perfectly balanced cocktails.
Starved Rock Lodge Rustic hotel rooms and cabins; three spots for dining; and a whole lot more.
Mother Road 101
Pick your nickname: Will Rogers Highway, America’s Main Street, the Mother Road—coined by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. The 2,448-mile route established in 1926 linked the Midwest and West Coast. After shrinking and relocating in spots, the exact mileage today is debatable. But not the romance and nostalgia.
Sunrise beckoned us up fog-shrouded boardwalks high above the Illinois River. Located west of Route 66 and only 3 miles south of Interstate-80, Starved Rock is one of the state’s most visited parks, drawing nearly 3 million people in 2019. But the crowds thin out across 13 miles of trails, a large visitors center and lodge. A keen eye for architecture may recognize the limestone in the buildings. Just like the prison walls, it came from the famous Joliet quarry.
After a short walk to the top of the namesake Starved Rock, our crew hiked into French Canyon, which was quiet on a weekday morning. We followed the stream to a trickling waterfall, dropping from a rocky shelf of moss and exposed roots. The soft sandstone throughout the park formed 18 canyons. But it’s a fragile resource, threatened by erosion. Boardwalks along the trails help protect the vulnerable landscape.
A few miles downstream and farther into Illinois’ I&M Canal Heritage Corridor, a mule-powered boat gave our Subarus a break. Then we cruised to Pontiac, for a deep dive into American car history.
Day Two Highlights
Starved Rock State Park Hit the trails early, then the trolley to cover more ground and visit Starved Rock Dam, where a lock lifts barges.
Illinois and Michigan Canal Pat mules Larry or Moe, then board a boat. The 96-mile I&M Canal (dug with pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows) altered the course of commerce for the region.
Cajun Connection Feast on gator bites, crawﬁsh étouffée and other legit Louisiana eats. And be sure to chat with the zany owner, Ron McFarlain, and his wife, Amy.
The Town of Pontiac Plan half a day to see famous Walldog murals, Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum, and swinging bridges on the edge of town.
The Palms Grill Cafe Like a scene from Twin Peaks, fresh daily pie and coffee call the shots in this vintage diner (note, closed as of August 2020).
Paul Bunyon In Atlanta, our second Muffler Man stood outside The Palms Grill. The 19-foot ﬁgure was the ﬁrst on Route 66 (originally outside Chicago), holding no ax, but...a jumbo hot dog. Get it? Bun intended.
Pontiac, the town, was named after an Ottawa chief. But car buff Tim Dye has channeled it into his favorite automaker. Beyond the classic cars on display, Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum showcases one-of-a-kind sketches of classic cars. The colorful, hand-drawn prints came from designers who smuggled them out of company studios. “Had these guys been caught taking these home, they’d have been ﬁred,” Dye says. He started collecting all things Pontiac in his teens. A museum was the logical step after ﬁlling up his home and garage.
If you thought history class gave you the full Abe Lincoln story, Springfield is here to prove otherwise. A bearded and red-shirted Lauterbach Tire Man welcomes travelers on the west side of Illinois’ capital. (That’s Muffler Man No. 3 on our list.) But the real giant of American history was waiting for us in the heart of downtown.
“We focus on Lincoln in his family years here. Who was he as a person, as a husband and father?” says Fritz Klein, playing the part of the 16th president from shiny shoes to black top hat. Klein walked us through rooms where Mary Todd and local attorney Abe ate meals, mourned the death of 4-year-old son Eddie, and rolled on the floor with kids and cats. Yes, Lincoln was a cat-lover.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum also offers rare glimpses of Lincoln. In a fun house-like room with distorted doorways and walls, we encountered many political cartoons of the day painting him as a monster and devil.
By the time we rubbed the nose on a Lincoln bust outside his tomb across town (it’s good luck), the larger-than-life president felt like a real human. And the divided nation he faced felt more relevant than ever.
Day Three Highlights
Custom Cup Coffee Great selection of baked goods (some gluten-free) and espresso in a stylish roastery in downtown Springﬁeld.
Illinois State Capitol Look up inside to take in the 405-foot, Renaissance Revival-style central dome.
Dana-Thomas House Stained glass. Chapel-like balconies. A bowling alley. Tour the 1904 home that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Susan Lawrence Dana.
Route Motorheads Bar, Grill and Museum Just off an Interstate-55 exit: pretzels the size of a small torso, cold beer and vintage cars turned into bar shelves.
Inn at 835 Enjoy a nightly wine and cheese social and balcony suites. Springﬁeld’s bed-and-breakfast-style hotel spans three stories in a fully renovated Classical Revival home.
The vaulted wooden ceiling was part of the original Stuckey’s that Ron Metzger transformed into Motorheads Bar and Grill in 2018. This temple for all things vintage auto extends outside with a massive beer garden (lined with old-school signs) and a re-created 1950s Texaco gas station. Outdoor stages host live bands. And Metzger is planning to add the world’s biggest Route 66 shield to mark the spot.
Food & Drink
Some of Route 66’s legends come on a plate (or in a paper boat). Here are four to try in Springﬁeld.
Cozy Dog Drive In Home to the original corn dog and still owned by the family of Route 66 legend Bob Waldmire (the Road Yacht guy).
Obed & Isaac's No better spot to try microbrews and Springﬁeld’s famed burger-cheese-and-fries-stuffed horseshoe sandwich.
Incredibly Delicious We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. An 1840s home, now a bakery-cafe with garden seating. (The owner lives on-site.)
Maldaner's Chef Michael Higgins grows herbs and veggies on the roof at this 136-year-old restaurant downtown.
On the horizon, the Mississippi River flowed like a finish-line ribbon to our southern-bound marathon. The Gateway Arch lassoed the sky beyond it. But this Illinois terminus of the Mother Road is more of a confluence. Here, Route 66 intersects with the Great River Road. Thick forest canopy meets rocky bluffs. And outdoor thrills merge with the arts and culinary craft in the twin towns of Alton and Grafton. Also, fact and myth start to blur.
“You’ll see swirls, fish and flora in our work,” Felicia Breen says inside her Mississippi Mud Pottery store in Alton. The bustling river town was on pace to outgrow St. Louis in the 1850s. Instead, it became a best-kept secret across the river. After the pottery, we visited a stone post office transformed into a dreamy coffee shop and sampled local beer and dynamic food in a repurposed bakery. Then we discovered Robert Wadlow.
A life-size statue of the late Alton local stands 8 feet 11 inches. Made of bronze, not fiberglass, he needs no rocket to woo travelers. Wadlow was the tallest man ever, born here in 1918, at the end of our route. It felt like a prize. Yes, we know the Muffler Men—and the road’s other giants too.
Day Four Highlights
Pink Elephant Antique Mall Yes, the elephant. But also Muffler Man No. 4 (wearing a Harley shirt), bonus roadside pics with a female version of a Muffler Man, plus sugary treats and antiques.
World's Largest Catsup Bottle You say “ketchup,” we say “look up!” The 170-foot marvel is a retired water tower.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site America’s largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico peaked around 1200. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the museum, then head for the hills.
Old Chain of Rocks Bridge Now limited to foot and bike traffic, the 1-mile bridge over the Mississippi River links Illinois and St. Louis.
Mississippi Mud Pottery Artists craft mugs, platters and bowls in the store. Ask about the mythical Piasa Bird appearing in some of the art.
Grafton Zipline An adventure in the woods includes seven ziplines, a hike and rappelling from a tree.
Aerie's Resort Choose a hotel-like suite or a cottage beside a winery high above Grafton. The SkyTour gondola opened late last year for an epic cable car view.
Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail A 20-mile path traces the Great River Road between bluffs and the Mississippi.
Food & Drink
Illinois’ southern stretch of Route 66 packs big-city ﬂavors in unexpected spaces.
Post Commons Coffee, all-day brunch and wine bottles in old post office slots. Locals call it Alton’s Living Room.
The Old Bakery Beer Try beers featuring basil or carrots at Alton’s huge bakery-turned-brewery.
The Winery at Aerie's Resort This deck was made for sunset, charcuterie and Aerie’s Private Label series.
Cleveland-Heath A founding chef drew two James Beard nods for this Edwardsville spot. The Japanese pancakes are a must.