TRAVELS with MARY: Route 66 Leads to Atlanta (Illinois)

The Palms Grill Cafe, above, opened in 1934 and restored in 2009, draws Route 66 travelers to Atlanta, Illinois from throughout the United States and many countries. The restaurant features period decor, blue plate specials and soda fountain treats. – Brent Bohlen photos

by Mary Bohlen

For a fix to get your kicks on Route 66, pile the family or friends into the coupe and head southwest to Atlanta, Illinois. Some 160 miles from Chicago just beyond Bloomington-Normal, Atlanta is chock full of enough Mother Road memorabilia to make your own memories.

You can snap a photo under a 19-foot, hot dog-holding Paul Bunyan statue, spend a quart of quarters on arcade games from your youth, admire an octagon-shaped library, learn about old grain elevators, pick up some kitsch and treat the gang to apple pie or chocolate sundaes topped with a dose of nostalgia.

We have worked very hard at recreating the experience of what it would have been like to visit and travel through a small town on Route 66 in the 1930s and 1940s.” – Bill Thomas, Logan County economic development director.

Those tasty treats and more from the historic Palms Grill Café are a popular draw for visitors, and it was the Grill’s reopening in 2009 that spurred tourist development in Atlanta, according to Bill Thomas, economic development director for Logan County.

“We have worked very hard at recreating the experience of what it would have been like to visit and travel through a small town on Route 66 in the 1930s and 1940s,” Thomas said.

A Paul Bunyon type
A huge Paul Bunyan statue carrying a hot dog instead of his trusty axe is part of the novelty of Atlanta. The 19-foot statue originally marked a restaurant in Cicero before being moved to Route 66 in Atlanta.

While the Grill remains the destination for thousands of Route 66 aficionados from throughout the world, you should save enough time to fill up on Atlanta’s other offerings. Fall is an especially good season, especially if you are headed to the International Mother Road Festival and its plethora of vintage vehicles in Springfield September 23-25.

Atlanta is Illinois’ geographic center on Route 66 and was once a handy stop for travelers. Town folks have built on that history by adding such icons as the Bunyan statue, which harkened hungry diners to an eatery on the legendary highway in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Now the lumberjack looms over Arch Street, the main road through downtown Atlanta.

On the sides of several buildings, visitors can gaze up at murals depicting life in the earlier days of Route 66. A corner park displays town landmarks and a few highway souvenirs.

Children of all ages will clamor for more coins at the Route 66 Arcade Museum, filled with pinball and early video games. The museum’s slogan, “Come, Misspend Your Youth One Quarter at a Time,” seems apt. It is free to enter and open 9-4 Monday through Saturday.

Drag yourself away from those games to peek at the nearby Atlanta Public Library and clock tower. Built in 1908, the library features wooden trim and shelves, comfortable armchairs, a children’s room and a sense of the time when libraries and not web sites were our source of knowledge. The clock tower adds to the town’s charm, and volunteers hand wind the clock weekly.

 

The lovely Atlanta Public Library with its charming clock tower is a place to visit for activities and information.
The lovely octagon-shaped Atlanta Public Library with its clock tower was built in 1908 and is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and is the center for community activity in this Route 66 community. Volunteers wind the clock in the tower weekly.

Just down the street is the wooden J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator, which, like the library, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It served area farmers from 1903 to 1976 and sported some innovations for its time, including a vertical bucket conveyor system powered by a gasoline engine. The town bought the abandoned building in 1988 and got donations from several businesses to restore it.

The elevator usually is open for tours only on Sunday afternoons in June, July and August, but visitors can call 309-830-8306 to arrange a free tour or simply walk around the grounds.

To learn more about the town’s history, stop by the Atlanta Museum on Arch Street when it is open 9-5 weekdays and by appointment on weekends. You can view photos, public records, historic documents and memorabilia.

If you are lucky, the Route 66 Memories Museum will be open with the private collection of a local resident, who has gathered a 1964 Rolls Royce, a wooden cigar store statue and other antiques. Museum hours vary; call 309-275-1920 to check. The building has large windows so you can see some things even it is closed.

The red barn tourist center in Atlanta.
The J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator and Museum provides visitors to Atlanta a glimpse of how grain was processed from 1930 to 1976, when it was in operation. Community members helped save and restore the building and opened it as a museum in 1999.

For memorabilia of your own, visit a gift and antique shop on Arch Street for Route 66 souvenirs, T-shirts to prove you were there and enough antiques to fill several houses.

A perfect way to top off your day is a meal or dessert at the Palms Grill Café in the middle of downtown. Once a bus stop, the restaurant offers blue plate specials, sandwiches, handmade milk shakes, pies, sundaes and other fountain treats. Waitresses wear period uniforms, and the decor is reminiscent of diners from the 1940s, complete with glass-covered cake stands and coffee in study mugs.

You can twirl on the counter stools while listening to music from yesteryear and the variety of languages from travelers intent on getting their kicks on 66.

For more information on Atlanta, call the Logan County economic development office at 217-648-5077 or Atlanta Illinois. You may also call the Atlanta Library for activities and hours at 217-648-2112. Call The Palms Grill Café at 217-648-2233.

Mary Bohlen is a Springfield-based freelance writer and retired journalism professor from the University of Illinois Springfield. She alternates writing columns on Midwestern travel with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago.

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