This week, Bob Larson and Tom McIntyre are taking a road trip on the famous Route 66.
Beginning in the 1920’s, Route 66, running from Chicago to Los Angeles, was a thing of dreams. During the depression, “the mother road” was a road to opportunity in California. During WWII, Route 66 meant soldiers and supplies could move quicker than ever to bases on the Pacific.
In the peacetime that followed, more mobile Americans took to the highway. Route 66 had been designed to go through towns. It was the main street of America. That meant big business for thousands of cafes, gas stations, and the motel. Ironically, all that mobility meant drivers wanted even more. So, the Interstate system was started. By the 1970’s, nearly all of Route 66 had been bypassed by a four-lane high way.
Pontiac, Illinois Mayor Bob Russell greets visitors to his city from all over the world. Pontiac is the epicenter of Route 66 tourism.
“We’ve had over 150 countries here,” says Russell. “I’ve a phone that speaks in 58 languages; I’ve used nearly all of them.”
Route 66 has a song written about it, there was an American TV show, and for a lot of tourists, there was Billy Connelly. The Scottish comedian did a TV series on Route 66, seen in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
First there was a Route 66 museum, and then there were the WallDog murals in the city. There’s the World War II museum, and Tim Dye brought his collection of Oakland and Pontiac cars, and created another museum. There are more kinds of oil cans here than you can imagine.
And there’s Chinese Artist Tang Dangbai, an airbrush artist who heard about Pontiac online and set up his own studio and school. He even paints on fabric.
For something completely unexpected, there’s the Gilding Museum, as in gold and silver leaf. They couldn’t get into the Smithsonian for as long as they wanted, so they came to Pontiac. All of this means big business for the city.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” says Mayor Russell. “There were eight or nin years getting to this point where we were just on the skinny all the time. Now it has drawn new stores throughout our downtown. We only have two vacant buildings left in our city.”
Route 66 may be in pieces and disjointed now, but the dream it represents is still alive, and nowhere more than in Pontiac.