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Thursday, May 2, 2019 12:16 am

The Mother Road is a mother

Route 66 gets ready for its closeup

Route 66 takes many paths through Springfield.
Photo By Bruce Rushton

It is, at once, the world’s most famous road and our most mysterious.

Lesser thoroughfares such as Bourbon Street or the Champs Elysees are easy to find. But Route 66 is more like the Silk Road, an ancient path that hasn’t existed, at least officially in Illinois, since 1977, the year that Elvis died and White Oaks Mall opened.

Travel guides abound, but you can’t find Route 66 on Google Maps, or any real map anywhere. To look at how the road snaked through Springfield over the years, as determined by Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway, recalls the words of Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter, who once described dormant drawings for street alignments to enable rail improvements through downtown as “a bowl of spaghetti.”

If Route 66 were a song – and it is – it would be “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the Johnny Cash tune with a protagonist who’s traveled the world, but in this case, it’s the mother road that’s been around, at least in the capital city. The Reader’s Digest version, obtained from the scenic byway organization, a nonprofit headquartered on Adams Street, shows three main routes through Springfield, with the Mother Road moving ever east as years passed until, finally, it followed Dirksen Parkway from 1940 until its demise.

With the city making plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Route 66 in 2026, it’s worth remembering that the initial version of the road, then a two-laner, went along the present paths of Fifth Street, Second Street and MacArthur Boulevard before heading south of the city on what is now Chatham Road. That alignment lasted four years before the road moved east to what is now Peoria Road and South Ninth Street, just in time for the Great Depression. The final route along present-day Dirksen, installed one year before Pearl Harbor, avoided urban congestion while offering two lanes.

None of the three accepted main routes passed by such legendary Route 66 attractions as the Maid-Rite drive-through restaurant at West Jefferson and Pasfield streets, which dates to 1921, five years before Route 66 was born, and boasts both slots on the National Register of Historic Places and the Food Channel.
“It’s pretty complicated,” says Geoff Ladd, assistant director of Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway. And he has maps to prove it.

Maldaner’s restaurant, for instance, is three blocks west of the Mother Road, but Ladd’s maps also show that the downtown establishment billed as the oldest eatery on Route 66 was, in fact, part of the alignment starting in 1930, when the road hit its heyday and the main route ran along present-day Ninth Street. Over the years, Ladd explains, the route had many spurs, and maps show them, from forays onto North Grand Avenue to jogs along Capitol Avenue.

Scott Dahl, city tourism director, perhaps optimistically, is tagging the city’s commemoration efforts as The Road Is Real. He plans to identify corridors and is leaning on Ladd’s group for help. Ninth, Fifth and Sixth streets, he figures, will be main arteries in a planned Route 66 trail through town. “We’re mapping them out as we speak,” Dahl says. “There were so many alignments through the years.”

Michael Higgins, proprietor of Maldaner’s, sees possibility, enough that he installed a Route 66 sign at his restaurant a few years back so Mother Road fans can take pictures. Already, he says, a Chicago-based tour company that offers trips along the entire length of the road makes his restaurant a destination and Springfield an overnight stop. “I’ve always thought, for the longest time, that we underutilize Route 66 in this town just because we have Lincoln,” Higgins says. “You take your regular tourist attractions of your city then you wrap Route 66 into them.”

Ladd sees two kinds of Route 66 aficionados, the foamers – denoting foaming-at-the-mouth sticklers for alignment details – and others who are looking for broader, experiential trips. Route 66, he allows, is as much a state of mind as anything, and his group aims for a wide base.
“We’re not going to say, ‘Don’t go to Lincoln’s tomb because it’s not on Route 66,’” Ladd says. “Same thing with Maid-Rite.”

Maid-Rite manager Sam Quaisi, who’s been watching over the iconic fast-food place for nearly a quarter century, doesn’t quibble: Route 66, no matter what Wikipedia or various newspapers say, is three blocks away from the restaurant. But that, he insists, doesn’t make Maid-Rite any less a Route 66 attraction.
Three years ago, Quaisi recalls, Maid-Rite opened for lunch on a Sunday to mark the 90th anniversary of Route 66 and sold 600 sandwiches in three hours. “Now, we’re waiting for the 100th,” he says. For the centennial, he says, he plans to offer a deal no one could refuse: $1 for anything on the menu.

I can’t wait.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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