A Big Anniversary Appears in the Headlights for Route 66

Activities, Illinois Tour Planner

With eyes cast toward 2026, communities across Illinois are gearing up to celebrate the centennial of America’s most famous highway

Since its official commissioning on November 11, 1926, Route 66 has captured the imagination of adventure-minded travelers. With the highway’s 100th anniversary coming up in two years, communities in Illinois and the other seven states along its path will be planning special events and polishing up their attractions for road trippers from around the world.

A pop culture icon immortalized in literature, music, TV shows, movies and other art forms, Route 66 symbolized freedom of the road for generations of travelers in the 20th century. Neon, signs, mom-and-pop diners, drive-ins, kitschy roadside curiosities, cozy motels and friendly filling stations characterized this linear corridor that stretched some 2,400 miles between Lake Michigan in Chicago and the Pacific shores of California.

Charting a diagonal course through the country’s heartland, Route 66 was called the “Mother Road” and “Main Street of America,” Though it was replaced by superhighways decades ago, Historic Route 66 signs on local roads remind today’s motorists of its allure. You’ll see these brown-and-white markers in urban and rural areas all along Illinois’ 300 miles of Route 66. Many legs of the old highway more or less parallel Interstate 55, and, in some cases, run adjacent to it.

The giant Route 66 shield at the Pontiac Museum Complex is a popular selfie spot.

The giant Route 66 shield at the Pontiac Museum Complex is a popular selfie spot. 

Pontiac is Big With Route 66 Fans

In Pontiac, about two hours southwest of downtown Chicago via I-55, Mother Road enthusiasts flock to the free-admission Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Museum, a repository of memorabilia celebrating the people and businesses that served motorists on the historic highway. Its largest item of interest is the Volkswagen minivan used by itinerant hippie-era artist Bob Waldmire (1945-2009) for traveling on Route 66. His 1972 VW was the model for the character Fillmore in the Pixar/Disney film Cars. Upstairs, visitors will find rooms with exhibits on 1940s nostalgia, Civil War music and the Titanic, plus the Livingston County War Museum, a treasure chest of military uniforms, photos and artifacts representing conflicts from World War I to Afghanistan. 

Outdoors, visitors to the Pontiac Museum Complex pose for photos in front of the giant Route 66 shield mural emblazoning the back wall of the 1900 building, once the city hall and home to the police and fire departments. Also on display is the converted 1966 school bus that Waldmire used as a mobile home/studio. 

Buildings in downtown Pontiac are decorated with 23 other artist-designed murals, including four that recall Route 66, one a sunset scene showing a bright yellow late-’50s Chevy. This spring the town unveils a new mural that is dedicated to the past, present and future of travel on Route 66.

Murals dedicated to Route 66 decorate buildings in downtown Pontiac, Illinois. (Randy Mink Photo)

Murals dedicated to Route 66 decorate buildings in downtown Pontiac, Illinois. (Randy Mink Photo)

Classic car buffs in Pontiac will find much to their liking at the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum, a shiny showroom displaying vintage Pontiac-brand cars and some of the Pontiac Buggy Company’s high-end Oakland models produced in the late 1920s and early ’30s.

Edinger’s Filling Station, a restaurant themed around Pontiac’s Route 66 heritage, makes a good lunch stop. Or take the group to the Old Log Cabin, a historic eatery dating back to the early days of Route 66.

The place of pilgrimage for Route 66 fans in Bloomington-Normal is Ryburn Place. Formerly Sprague’s Super Service, the 1931 Tudor-Revival landmark survives as the largest of the few remaining two-story gas stations left on the old thoroughfare; the owner’s family and an attendant lived upstairs. The restored building functions today as a gift shop/information center.

The American Giants Museum is a new attraction in Atlanta, Illinois. (Randy Mink Photo)

The American Giants Museum is a new attraction in Atlanta, Illinois. (Randy Mink Photo)

Route 66 Attractions in Atlanta

In the Logan County town of Atlanta, the new American Giants Museum tells the story of the 20-foot-tall “Muffler Man” statues that once towered over automotive and other highway businesses. Exhibits in the building, a replica of a 1960s Texaco gas station, enlighten visitors about the California company that made them, International Fiberglass. Outside, the museum is expected to have six of these rescued and restored giants in time for the Route 66 centennial in 2026; at press time there was one in place. Popular in the ’60s, many of these advertising characters mimicked mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, but other examples included roosters, cowboys, Native American chiefs and Bob’s Big Boy. 

Atlanta is the perfect place for the giants museum, as the town’s main landmark for many years has been the Bunyon Giant, a 19-foot-tall fiberglass Muffler Man holding a hot dog. Known locally as Tall Paul, the giant once stood at Bunyon’s, a hot dog stand in Cicero, Illinois. (The owner, H.A. Stephens, used the name “Bunyon’s,” changing the “a” to an “o” to avoid potential copyright infringement from the Paul Bunyan Cafe in Arizona.)

Lincoln is Rich with Route 66 and Presidential History

The town of Lincoln (pop. 15,000), the seat of Logan County, hosts several photo-worthy Route 66 attractions. Railsplitter Covered Wagon is the largest covered wagon in the world, as recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records. Built of oak and steel in 2001, it typifies the kind of oversized attention-getters found on old Route 66, measuring 40 feet long, 12 feet wide and 25 feet tall. Sitting in the driver’s seat is a 12-foot-tall statue of Abraham Lincoln as he might have appeared when traveling around the state as a circuit lawyer. 

Lincoln is the only town named for him before he became president. The 16th president also is remembered at the town’s Lincoln Heritage Museum, which has rare Lincoln-related artifacts and immersive audio-visual displays that tell the story of his life.

A replica of the Tropics restaurant sign has been restored and mounted in Lincoln, Illinois. (Photo credit: Logan County Tourism Bureau)

A replica of the Tropics restaurant sign has been restored and mounted in Lincoln, Illinois. (Photo credit: Logan County Tourism Bureau)

Photo opportunities in Lincoln also include the Tropics Restaurant Neon Sign, a magnificent replica complete with palm tree. Recalling a beloved institution that operated from 1950 until closing in 1997, the sign is best seen in the evening. The restaurant, torn down long ago, was named in remembrance of the first owner’s military duty in Hawaii.

The Mill Museum and Gift Shop on 66, also in Lincoln, occupies a former restaurant that resembles a Dutch windmill. Open from April to October, it has exhibits on the old Blue Mill restaurant, built in 1929, and two other bygone eateries that served Route 66 travelers.

“Logan County and all of Illinois are very excited for the centennial of Route 66 in 2026,” said Alice Roate, executive director of the Logan County Tourism Bureau. ”We are currently working on improving signage on the road, adding more attractions, and planning an exciting event for 2026. Route 66 is a huge draw for tourism in Logan County and we can’t wait to meet all of the travelers that will be on the road in the coming years.” 

Springfield Abounds with Route 66 Lore

Springfield, the state capital, also is gearing up for the Route 66 anniversary.

“Springfield has been preparing for the Route 66 Centennial since 2019, starting with a master interpretive plan and moving to action phases where we are completing projects like the Illinois State Fairgrounds Route 66 Experience and re-opening Shea’s Gas Station & Museum,” said Scott Dahl, director, Visit Springfield. “Tourism records will be shattered in 2026, led by international travelers exploring the Mother Road, North America hosting the FIFA World Cup and our nation turning 250 years old.” 

Centennial festivities in Springfield will culminate with the 25th annual International Route 66 Mother Road Festival, set for September 25-27, 2026. It will feature a car show with hundreds of entries, music, food, celebrity guests and a Miss Route 66 Contest.

Illinois State Fairgrounds Route 66 Experience in Springfield. (Randy Mink Photo)

Illinois State Fairgrounds Route 66 Experience in Springfield. (Randy Mink Photo)

The capital city’s newest Mother Road attraction is the Illinois State Fairgrounds Route 66 Experience, an outdoor walk-through exhibit with little red sheds highlighting businesses and attractions, past and present, in 92 Illinois communities. The garden courtyard brims with replicas of billboards and neon signs that once advertised motels, a drive-in movie theater and other places along the fabled ribbon of roadway. Illuminated at night, the signs cast a magical glow. 

Nearby is Slide Down 66!, a 40-foot-high slide emblazoned with a Route 66 shield emblem (open May 6-August 5 on Saturdays only and August 10-20 during regular Illinois State Fair hours). Across the drive you can’t miss Abe the Rail Splitter, a 30-foot-tall statue of Springfield’s own Abraham Lincoln. 

The Fairgrounds’ Route 66 installations were done by Springfield’s family-owned Ace Sign Company, which offers free guided tours of its plant/museum, where dozens of rare signs from Springfield and Route 66 are on display next to tables where workers are drilling, trimming and welding. Among notable neon signs are a 12-foot-tall neon Pepsi bottle cap (1953) and one that graced Springfield’s Sonrise Donuts, a Ninth Street shop that enticed donut lovers for 70 years. Housed under a wood-barreled ceiling of a 42,000-square-foot warehouse built for Sears Roebuck in 1952, Ace’s state-of-the-art factory—located two blocks from Historic Route 66—makes neon, LED and electric signs for clients across the nation. The company even restores theater marquees. The museum welcomes motorcoach groups. 

Springfield Eateries Preserve the Spirit of Route 66

Nostalgia lovers also flock to Motorheads Bar & Grill, a restaurant that occupies a former Stuckey’s travel stop on four acres of land. Its dining area, entertainment dome and free indoor-outdoor museum overflow with vintage advertising and automotive-themed memorabilia—irresistible eye candy for car guys, Route 66 fans and collectors of vintage signs. Motorheads’ biggest claim to fame is the world’s largest Route 66 shield, a 32-foot-tall sign fabricated and installed in 2020 by Ace Sign Company on Stuckey’s original 60-foot-tall poles. 

The Motorheads collection includes cars, motorcycles, gas pumps, Coke machines, restaurant menus, telephone booths, a soda fountain, barber shop, you name it. Some of the automotive-related items were bought at auction in 2015 from Shea’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum, a Texaco and later Marathon filling station that owners Bill and Helen Shea transformed into a museum, a popular Springfield attraction from 1995 until Bill’s death in 2013. Thanks to a Route 66 grant from the state, Shea’s museum, near the Illinois State Fairgrounds, is being reborn and will reopen in 2024. 

Motorheads Bar &Grill in Springfield signs and automobile-related memorabilia. (Randy Mink Photo)

Motorheads Bar & Grill in Springfield abounds with vintage signs and automobile-related memorabilia. (Randy Mink Photo)

Beer at Motorheads is tapped from automobile trunks mounted on the wall, and the wide-ranging menu, or “owner’s manual,” lists everything from hamburgers to horseshoes. A Springfield specialty, the horseshoe typically consists of two slices of Texas toast, your meat of choice (hamburger, ham, turkey, chicken or shrimp), French fries and cheese sauce. A smaller version, the ponyshoe, comes with just one slice of bread.

Springfield’s best-known eatery from Route 66 days is Cozy Dog Drive In, a fast-food joint packed with mementos, articles clippings and old signs. It was founded in the late 1940s by Ed Waldmire Jr. (father of artist Bob Waldmire), who introduced the Cozy Dog, the name he gave his cornmeal-battered hot dog on a stick, and is still owned by the same family. Not far away is one of five locations of Mel-o-Cream, Springfield’s favorite purveyor of donuts since 1932.

On Historic Route 66 in downtown Springfield, road trippers find their way to one of only a few remaining early franchises of Maid-Rite, a friendly little old-school diner dating back to the 1920s. This humble location is touted as being the first fast food drive-thru in America. Maid-Rite is famous for its “loose meat” sandwich (crumbly ground beef on a super soft bun with onion, pickle relish and mustard) and homemade root beer, a simple concoction of sassafras, vanilla, sugar and water.

Following Route 66 from Springfield to the Mississippi River

The final leg of Historic Route 66 meanders 100 or so miles through southwestern Illinois, ending at the Mississippi River. 

History and architecture buffs will go crazy in Carlinville, notable for Carlinville Historic Square with its collection of specialty shops in painstakingly restored 19th century buildings. 

Henry’s Ra66it Ranch in Staunton, though it didn’t exist before the mid-1990s, maintains the traditions of the Mother Road with a curious mix that includes live rabbits in pens, Volkswagen Rabbits, and other car and truck memorabilia.

Litchfield takes pride in the Ariston Cafe, a fine restaurant that’s been around since 1924. Or grab a bite at nearby Jubelt’s Bakery & Restaurant, a homey cafe on Old Route 66. The neighboring Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center, marked by the Vic Suhling Gas for Less Sign on its original site, salutes local businesses that flourished the roadway’s heyday.  

In Livingston, a giant pink elephant visible from I-55, plus other larger-than-life sculptures, beckons wayfarers to Pink Elephant Antique Mall, housed in a former high school. Next door is the 1950s-style Twistee Treat Diner, whose whimsical ice cream cone-shaped building whets your appetite for burgers, fries and ice cream creations.

Collinsville is home to the restored Brooks Catsup Bottle Water Tower, the world’s largest catsup bottle. A great photo op a bit off 66, the quirky,   170-foot-tall tower was built in 1949 to supply water to the catsup plant. It is roadside Americana at its finest.

At the Mississippi River in Madison, the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge was built in 1929 as part of Route 66. Featuring a 30-degree turn midway across, the one-mile span today serves as one of the world’s longest bicycle and pedestrian bridges.

From Illinois, Route 66 continued west across Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before reaching Southern California. Encompassing the road’s easternmost leg and some of its most colorful sights, Illinois is truly the place for kicks on 66, especially in 2026.

For more great stories about Illinois, you can subscribe to Leisure Group Travel for FREE.

By Randy Mink

Lead photo – Illinois State Fairgrounds Route 66 Experience. (Photo credit: Visit Springfield)

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