PONTIAC - The drive from Chicago to Los Angeles is a long one but is quicker today than in the 1950s. Interstate highways today allow motorists to zip along the 2,100 miles in a day and a half.
The drive, however, isn't as much fun as it once was. Before the interstate system, a family motoring from the Windy City to the City of Angels would take Route 66: a slow but colorful drive dotted with garish signs, funky restaurants and tourist traps.
Technically, Route 66 doesn't exist anymore. The federal government decommissioned it state by state between 1977 and 1985, replacing the sections of highway with Interstates 55, 44, 40, 15 and 10.
Motorists still can retrace much of Route 66 from behind the wheel, however, and anyone wondering what they'd have once seen along this uniquely American highway can get a taste at the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum, located in Pontiac.
The museum has a collection of old photos, articles, menus, commemorative plaques and other curious items taken from parts of old Route 66. With a monthly attendance of about 2,000, the free museum provides a nostalgic stop for motorists retracing the decommissioned highway or tourists with a love of Americana.
"The museum is a big draw for us," said Ellie Alexander, tourism director for the city of Pontiac, noting the museum draws 20 percent of its tourists from overseas, "but then Route 66 is a big draw for us."
The museum is as colorful as many of the hokey sites that once dotted Route 66 and includes some rather diverse artifacts, including:
n A stuffed Jackalope (part jack rabbit, part antelope) recovered from Scotty's Restaurant & Bar in Hamel, Ill.
n Rooms devoted to large photos from each of the states Route 66 had passed through: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico and Arizona
n Menus from Route 66 restaurants (some active, some defunct) including Cozy Dogs, Steak â€˜N' Shake and Pig Hip Sandwiches
n Autographed photos of Route 66 celebrities
including singer-songwriter Bobby Troup, known for "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66," and Sammy Davis Jr.
n A pipe from the organ at Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet
Downtown Pontiac also offers 19 murals depicting themes and scenes from Route 66, led by the Route 66 shield adorning the rear of the museum. The Walldogs, a group of 150 sign painters and muralists, completed another 18 murals in four days in June.
Alexander said visits are up 100 percent in 2009, thanks to a shifting emphasis on short trips and "staycations" as well as growing interest in old Route 66. Tourists arrive using all manner of transportation; one group from California had their motorcycles shipped to Chicago so they could ride one way along the remnants of Route 66.
"We get people who walk, who ride bikes, car clubs, women's groups and lots of motorcycles - everything," Alexander said.
Rose Geralds, a volunteer tour guide, once hosted a group of hearing-impaired tourists who arrived on several buses spaced minutes apart. She graciously led a walk-through, drawing up handwritten notes to provide accompaniment as the visitors scoured the glass cases and wall displays.
"And thank heavens I kept my notes because here came another group," she recalled, noting tourists tend to arrive by the busload.
The exhibits primarily are visual and tactile, making it accessible to all age groups.
"Oh, it's great," said Robert Wyckoff of Germantown, Tenn. (near Memphis), leafing through maps and other mementos. "The museum is just fantastic. I really can't say enough about it."
Wyckoff said he remembered traveling Route 66 with his parents and two brothers but was quick to acknowledge the memories weren't all pleasant ones. He recalled his parents arguing over missed turns and of pleading with his dad to pull over for bathroom breaks.
"And the windows were cracked just enough so the cigarette smoke wouldn't bother them - it'd blow back and bother us," he said, adding with a shrug, "It's called parents from the â€˜50s."
For anyone who remembers Route 66 more fondly than Wyckoff, the 112-mile round trip from La Salle-Peru to Pontiac is a worthwhile one. The museum was built in an old jail and visitors can admire professional photography of Route 66 landmarks in rooms that still have bars in the window and, in one converted cell, a commode for the inmates.
"It was part of the room," Alexander explained. "It was just sitting there all these years vacant so we decided we'll just clean it up and leave it in there."
The building also houses the Livingston County War Museum, a somber but tasteful and informative collection of war artifacts donated by the area's veterans and their families. (Story Page C4)
The Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac is located at 110 W. Howard St. in downtown Pontiac. From La Salle-Peru, take Interstate 39 south to exit 22 (Route 116/Peoria-Pontiac)and follow signs to Pontiac.
Head east 21 miles on Route 116 and turning left onto Route 116/Old Route 66 and then right onto Route 116/Interlake Drive.
The museum and parking both are free, though donations are gratefully accepted. The three-story museum is handicapped accessible with an elevator.
Museum hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday spring through fall. Winter hours (December through March) are 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
For more information, call (815) 844-5847 or visit the Web site at www.il66assoc.org.