Group works to restore kicks to Route 66

Kathy Sperlak

It’s been immortalized in literature, song, movies and television, but there’s little left in the Chicago area to identify Route 66.

That may change over the coming years as fans of the “Mother Road” work on an interpretive master plan to highlight the historic road’s presence in Illinois. The Illinois Route 66 Heritage Project held the first of several information-gathering sessions last week at Countryside City Hall. 

Planners hope to learn more about how the road shaped the communities along its 421-mile journey through the state, both by its presence and by its absence once Interstate highways were built. The goal is to help the small communities that the highway bypassed and to revitalize businesses along the old Route 66 by encouraging tourism, said Patty Ambrose, executive director of the Heritage Project. 

The planning is being done by Schmeeckle Reserve Interpreters of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, with funding from the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, the Illinois Department of Transportation and the federal highway administration.

When completed, the project may consist of signage, kiosks and visitor centers, similar to what has been done to promote the Illinois Lincoln Highway. 

“A lot of young people have no memories of Route 66 and can’t find it on maps,” said Ron Zimmerman of Schmeeckle Reserve Interpreters.

That sentiment was echoed by Bill Latham of Willow Springs, who said there is “pitiful little left of the original road.” 

That can be frustrating for travelers, many from outside the U.S., who want to retrace the route made famous in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” 

Ambrose noted that when the Springfield Convention and Tourism Bureau travels to other countries promoting the Lincoln sites, they’re often asked about the fate of Route 66.

There are still local spots that exist from the road’s heyday, including the Wishing Well Motel on what is now Joliet Road in Countryside and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket Restaurant on Joliet Road in Willowbrook, but Interstate 55 has gone over large parts, leaving little to show of the historic route.

Kathy Wenzel said she and her sister, Diane Wenzel, both of La Grange Park, traveled Route 66 last year, adding that Illinois was the worst of all the states in identifying the route. 

“A lot of people don’t realize its impact on Illinois,” Diane Wenzel said. 

Countryside Mayor Robert Conrad said several communities along the path of Route 66 hold car shows to commemorate the historic road. Countryside holds two each year, he said.

The staff of Schmeeckle Reserve Interpreters will gather more input at meetings to be held in Joliet, Pontiac, Bloomington, Springfield, Lincoln and Litchfield in the next two weeks. They’re also looking for old photographs, memorabilia and stories about Route 66.

Countryside hopes to eventually open a Route 66 museum and is now taking resident’s stories at The information will provide the Heritage Project with perspective on the route.