The Route 66 highway stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles, and fascination with this stretch of scenic byway brings visitors from all over the U.S. and around the world to the Land of Lincoln. Not long ago I stayed up late and watched the movie The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck's 1939 novel. It was Steinbeck who assigned Route 66 the name Mother Road. That name has stuck, and popular festivals like the car event, The International Route 66 Mother Road Festival, bear the name today.
Central Illinois offers Route 66 experiences from quirky things to see like iconic art to simple dining pleasures and historic happenings. With so many stops right here, it is easy to enjoy a couple days of Route 66 hopping without traveling far! Begin in Macoupin County, Illinois, and end in Springfield's Capital City!
1. Doc’s Soda Fountain
S 2nd Street, Girard
To get to Doc’s, veer off Route 4/Route 66 onto the Girard Square! This is a great place to begin your Route 66 journey. Owners Bob and Renae Ernst of the Furniture Doctor purchased the former Deck’s Drug Store, which opened in 1884, and turned it into a pharmacy museum. Three generations of the Deck family operated the drug store and ran it for 117 years. The items in the museum are just as they would’ve been if the Deck brothers walked out and closed their doors.
Ice cream and old-fashioned sodas are offered in the beautifully restored fountain along with a fun lunch. Plan an hour or more for this stop.
Pro Tip: Check the map in the back room at Doc’s Soda Fountain, mark a pin to indicate where you are from, and see where all the visitors hail from.
If you didn’t get ice cream at Doc’s, my husband loves the ice cream at Whirl-a-Whip, also located in Girard along Route 66. Note that the Whirl-a-Whip is not open year-round.
2. Iron Sleds MC
Morean Street, Nilwood
Head south to Nilwood for the next stop: Iron Sled MC. This bike club was started by a group of bike lovers in 1976. The artwork on the side of the former gas station was hand painted by member Cozzy Cosentino and later repainted by former club president Steve Wilkins. Names of the Iron Sled members who have passed are engraved on the side of the building. Inside, there is a tribute to them as well. Jeff Smith, a club member, said, “We bought this building in the early 1980s. This building was built in 1931. It was the Westend Garage and owned by the Rossmans. We’ve added on twice and we are going to add on soon.”
Member Gregg Hinds said, “This was a working garage until the mid-1970s, then it sat empty until we got it.”
After the purchase, the building was renovated, and the new business moved in during the late 1980s.
Iron Sled MC does a lot of charitable work. Smith added, “We donate to kids in Iraq overseas, and also do Halloween and Christmas help here in Macoupin County.”
During COVID-19, they helped a family that was quarantined and needed food and additional items. They also work with Darts for Kids, an organization that helps support the families of terminally ill children.
Although Iron Sleds is a private club, they welcome visitors to sign their guest book and take pictures. The guest book has signatures from the Netherlands, Japan, and places all over the U.S.
“Some of our members are ministers and will do prayers for rides,” Smith added. “They bless the bikes.”
The prayer is a beautiful one, whether you are traveling by bike or car. He shared a card with me, and it goes like this: “May God bless you and your rider safe on this machine. May you encounter the blessings of the freedom of the open road and fellowship of other bikers in your travels. May the Lord be with you at home and on the road. May he fill your life abundantly with his many blessings. May he keep all your riding safe. May his mercy, grace, and love shine upon every road. Amen.”
Fun Fact: The Iron Sleds have performed a few marriages as well!
3. Turkey Tracks
Southwest Of Nilwood On Donaldson Road
For quirky fun, head a bit further south to see turkey tracks on Route 66! This may be my favorite stop ever, just because it is so unexpected. The story behind the tracks is that they came either from wild turkeys or from a farmer’s turkeys crossing the road when they were pouring the concrete for the original Route 66.
This is a short stop but a fun one! What makes this so special is that it is not man made; it simply happened -- a fluke event while the concrete set!
Note Direction Change: At this point, you turn back north on Route 4/66 toward Virden, Illinois.
4. Virden Miner’s Riot Memorial
Central Park, Virden
The Virden Race Riot Memorial is made of granite and bronze and is three-dimensional. It commemorates the Virden Race Riot. The sculpture was created by David Seagraves and was dedicated in October of 2006.
The United Mine Workers strike was in 1898. The riot took place when black miners from Birmingham, Alabama, were brought to break the strike. On October 12, strikers surrounded the train carrying the strike breakers. Shooting started, a gun battle took place. The result was several wounded and twelve deaths. The strike ended, but at a huge cost.
Pro Tip: For those fascinated with the coal history, in Gillespie, Illinois, about 40 minutes south, there is the Illinois Coal Museum.
5. Original Brick Road on Route 66
Curran Road, Auburn
Continuing on Route 4 north to Auburn is possibly one of the most photographed stretches of Route 66, the original brick road section. This area is 1.4 miles long and the bricks were over a concrete road bed.
6. Route 66 Motorheads Bar, Grill, And Museum
Toronto Road, Springfield
Welcome to Springfield! When you arrive, you might want to stop at the Springfield Visitors Center or call ahead as Jeff Berg, tourism manager of the Springfield CVB, advised to pick up your Explorer Passport, which includes a guide to the Route 66 Living Legends of Springfield. Berg told us, “The passport is a great way to see all the Route 66 attractions in Springfield.”
Then it’s on to Motorheads, the cool new Route 66 kid on the block! They are a bar and grill, a cool museum, and an event site as well. Car shows and musical entertainment happen regularly at Motorheads!
On August 14, 2020, owner Ron Metzger added what he thinks is the largest Route 66 sign around! It measures approximately 32 inches by 32 inches.
A walk through the museum is mandatory if you stop at Motorheads. Visitors from the area will recognize the museum is filled with Central Illinois and Springfield memorabilia collected over the years. Those who have traveled along Route 66 will recognize pieces of history at Motorheads both inside and out.
7. The Cozy Dog Drive In
6th Street, Springfield
No Route 66 visit to the Land of Lincoln would be complete without a stop to the Cozy Dog Drive In. This is where Ed Waldmire developed his famous “hot dog on a stick” back in 1949. They are still using the same recipe for their batter. It’s not a corn dog; it’s not a pronto pup; it’s a cozy dog!
Not long ago, I took the grandkids to the Cozy Dog Drive In, and I must say we had some of the best french fries I have had in a long time! The Cozy Dog sign out front is iconic, and the art by Ed’s son Bob Waldmire always catches attention.
8. Mahan’s Filling Station At Fulgenzi’s
Sangamon Avenue, Springfield
Mahan’s Filling Station sits on Fulgenzi’s Pizza and Pasta’s property, which was formerly the site of two Route 66 hotels. This filling station was part of Bill Shea Sr.’s museum. Jeff Fulgenzi bought the station and moved it to their family restaurant and is in the process of restoring it. The gas station dates to around 1917!
This is a great place to take a picture and then dine at Fulgenzis.
This is just part of the Route 66 journey. See what you can find and make your own Mother Road memories!