Edwardsville has a historic theater, Collinsville a giant catsup bottle and East St. Louis its jazz — all Americana from the glory days of Route 66.
Now a series of 12 outdoor murals will link some southern Illinois towns along the Mother Road. Tapping into history, kitsch and modern points of pride, the public artwork is being called the Route 66 Mural Art Trail.
The templates for the murals are similar, but "they are all unique to the city they are representing," said artist Daniel Ricketts, owner of St. Louis Sign & Mural.
In July, he and two others painted Edwardsville's colorful mural, a couple of doors down from the popular Stagger Inn and not too far from Wildey Theatre, built in 1909, and a life-size fiberglass steer at Goshen Butcher Shop.
Organizers hope the murals — coming four years before the centenary celebration of Route 66 — will draw visitors to Illinois' last 100 miles of the route.
"Traveling along Route 66 is a huge draw for international travelers," said Stephanie Tate, marketing and communications director for Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau.
Visitors will come to the U.S. for a month to make the roughly 2,400-mile road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, she said. She hopes to draw more domestic fans to southern Illinois' portion of Route 66, which morphed over the years, adding and subtracting local and state roads.
In May, the tourism bureau received a state grant for $919,000 to pay for the murals. The bureau also plans to use the grant for six monuments and the transformation of the West End Service Station in Edwardsville as a new interpretative and educational museum and Route 66 visitor center.
According to the National Park Service, more than 250 buildings, bridges, road alignments and other sites along Route 66 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As the country's automobile culture grew in the 1920s, some of the roads designated as part of Route 66 in 1926 still had not been paved. But the highway soon became a symbol of freedom and adventure.
"While not the first long-distance highway, or the most traveled, Route 66 gained fame beyond almost any other road," says the National Museum of American History. "Dubbed the 'Mother Road' by John Steinbeck in 'The Grapes of Wrath,' Route 66 carried hundreds of thousands of Depression-era migrants from the Midwest who went to California hoping for jobs and a better life."
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower supported construction of new high-speed interstates, and in 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned. But support for the highway remained, and Congress passed an act in 1999 to create the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. Nostalgia has never waned.
"We want to reignite that love affair with the road again," Tate said.
The best of Route 66
Pontiac Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, Pontiac, Ill.: There are myriad Route 66 museums, but this is the first stop for many travelers. It's home to thousands of items related to the road, including a booth from the first Steak 'n' Shake restaurant. A mural of the black-and-white Route 66 shield decorates the side of the building.
Cozy Dog Drive-In, Springfield, Ill.: The cozy dog, a hot dog dipped in a cornbread-like batter and served on a stick, was concocted by Springfield resident Ed Waldmire. By 1949, the Cozy Dog Drive-In had opened alongside Route 66, where it's still run by Waldmire's descendants. A stop here is a tradition.
Soulsby Shell, Mount Olive, Ill.: This canopy-style filling station appears much like when gasoline was first pumped there in 1926. A realignment of Route 66 in 1931 brought it within a few feet of Soulsby's pumps. Fuel was sold there until 1991, and now preservation of the pristine spot is a labor of love for local volunteers.
Wagon Wheel Motel, Cuba, Mo.: Route 66 enthusiasts were relieved in 2009 when Cuba resident Connie Echols bought and restored the 1934-era business with 1940s décor. Even the 1947 neon sign welcomes guests, but it still only faces east. "Due to a highway re-alignment, you could only get into the motel heading west," Echols says.
66 Outpost and General Store, Fanning, Mo.: When Route 66 was originally built, efforts to attract people off the highway led to a profusion of quirky roadside attractions like the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Ariz., where the rooms are inside concrete teepees. Similar marketing tactics continue. In 2008, the "world's largest rocking chair" was built in front of the 66 Outpost and General Store. The 42-foot-high, 20-foot-wide rocker features a Route 66 shield on the front.
Spring Valley Court, Richland, Mo.: Even businesses that no longer operate are attractions along the Mother Road. Just a mile west, off Interstate 44 at exit 145, four rubble-faced rock cabins and a rock shower house are all that remain of the 1929-era Spring Valley Court. But the abandoned resort still attracts informed travelers.
Woodruff Building, Springfield, Mo.: The 10-story office building has been known as the Woodruff Building since it opened Feb. 1, 1911. Inside the Woodruff on April 30, 1926, a telegram was sent to federal authorities suggesting the designation of "66" for the new highway. The reasoning was that the numerals were easy to remember and pronounce.
Route 66 Visitor Center, Baxter Springs, Kansas: Only 13 miles of Route 66 traverse the southeastern tip of Kansas, but that hasn't stopped the town of Baxter Springs from opening a Route 66 visitor center in a 1930 Tudor-style cottage gasoline station.
Route 66 Soda: The entire length of Route 66 is the target market for Route 66 Root Beer. Each bottle carries a vignette about the road on the back label. The beverage can be found in many of the museums, welcome centers and tourist attractions along the way.