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Midwest Travel: Route 66 Alive And Well In Atlanta, Illinois

Brent Bohlen

For a quick fix to get your kicks on 66, pile the family or friends into the coupe and head north to Atlanta, Illinois. Fewer than 50 miles from Springfield, 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 vintage arcade games, 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.

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.

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 with the Atlanta Fall Festival on tap for September 8-10 with carnival rides, special food and parade.

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 Cicero, near Chicago. 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.


Credit Brent Bohlen
The octagon-shaped Atlanta Public Library, built in 1908 and on the National Registry of Historic Places, is a center for community activity in this Route 66 community. Local volunteers weekly wind the clock in the tower.

  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.

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.

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 pie 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. (The town’s website is not always current.) Call 217-648-2112 for hours and activities at the Atlanta Library. The Palms Grill Café’s number is 217-648-2233; the café also maintains a Facebook page.       

   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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