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Volunteer project aims to raise IL tourism

Fri, Sep 7, 2012

Members of the National Federation of Press Women in front of the Route 66 mural, one of more than 20 in downtown Pontiac, IL that depict 19th century wall advertising. (Mary Pat Finn-Hoag photo)

The sign outside the restored 1930s gas station/body shop on Route 66 in downstate Odell said Chicago was 87 miles away, and Los Angeles 2,361.

But I felt “a million miles from Monday,” to quote the mid-90s Illinois advertising campaign. Or away from Wednesday in the Uptown offices of StreetWise, as the case might be.

John Weiss, winner of a John Steinbeck Award (along with his late wife, Lenore) from the National Historic Route 66 Federation for his preservation work, was talking about the gas station restoration to a Parisian couple who had seen him on TV at home. Above us were old photos of the bustling gas station in its hey day, along with currency left by tourists from nearly 20 countries, including England and Norway, South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and Malaysia.

Foreign tourists comprise between 60 and 70 percent of the traffic on Route 66 today, but usually they spend just one day in Illinois, Weiss said. The objective is to create enough attractions to extend their stay in the state up to three days, he said.

Weiss has done his part, as chair of the Route 66 Association Preservation Committee of Illinois, as an author, and as a team leader on several projects. Besides the Odell gas station, he’s helped fix up a street car diner in Gardner, repaired a Route 66 bridge in Pontiac, helped relocate a Paul Bunyan statue to Atlanta (IL) and renovate The Mill restaurant in Lincoln.

I met Weiss two years ago when he led a three-day tour of the National Federation of Press Women from Joliet to Lincoln after their convention in Chicago. He delivered the requisite relaxed downstate trip that nevertheless had emotional and historic appeal. And so I was complicit when he directed the Parisian couple, Line and Pierre Audin, to Pontiac, less than 10 miles down the road. I had loved the town for its 1875 courthouse and beautiful square, its combined Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Livingston County War Museum, three swinging pedestrian bridges over the Vermillion River and 20 wall murals depicting early 20th century advertisements.

On this trip with intern Alex Filipowicz I sought to transmit not only the excitement of historic discovery but an inexpensive getaway close to home. There was also the possibility of camaraderie from volunteer projects that contribute to the economic well-being of Illinois towns. Some of these community development ideas are as simple as State Fair-winning pies, while others demand skills in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) – appropriate to ponder on Labor Day.

Outside Joliet on Illinois Route 53, Midewin Tallgrass Prairie is the first of its kind in the United States.

Located on the former site of the Joliet Arsenal, Midewin (mih-DAY-win) means “healing” in the Pottawatomi language. One of the visions there is that the land and people will heal each other, said Allison Cisneros, volunteer coordinator.

“When people are in open spaces they get to relax,” Cisneros said. “It really restores people so that they have energy and excitement for life.”

Illinois was 40 percent wetlands until the pioneers of the early 1800s drained fields for farming, Cisneros said. The invention of the steel plow in 1820 made it even easier to cut through the prairie ecosystem, which she compared to an “upside down forest” of mostly underground roots and fertile soil with fungi. When Midewin was transferred from the U.S. Army to the USDA Forest Service in 1997 and restoration began, its prairie land amounted to just three percent: the spaces in cemeteries or along train tracks that were inaccessible to a plow.

Now, however, Midewin produces 30 to 60 percent of its own seed on 20 acres set aside for propagation; others come from similar terrain in southern Wisconsin or northern Indiana. Volunteers harvest seeds in fall; in winter, they spend time inside cleaning them.

In summer volunteers plant flowers or remove invasive plants such as teasel, garlic mustard and honeysuckle. They might also work clearing and marking more than 34 miles of trails for hikers, bicyclists and equestrians.

Volunteer days are every Thursday, while September 29 is National Public Lands Day. Morning activities will include seed harvest (good for even children, accompanied by adults); invasive plant removal; trail maintenance; planting native wildflowers and shrubs; and collecting aquatic insects to determine stream quality. Tours and hikes will be in the afternoon. Interested people can RSVP by September 21 to assistant volunteer coordinator Gemma: gguenther@fs.fed.us or 815.423.2148.

Cisneros knows the prairie is coming back because there are more butterflies, frogs, plants and birds. More than 120 bird species breed there. Bird pairs flying over are attracted to its 19,000 acres of contiguous space, the largest in northeastern Illinois, and as more wetlands are restored, she hopes even more species will stop by.

A few miles further down Illinois Route 53 in Godley (population 601) Monica Mack remembers sledding down coal slag heaps and jumping off right before the entrance to the K-Mine. Her uncle operated a machine called the Big Wheel, which shoveled coal from the strip mine onto a conveyor belt. Her brother also worked there.

Two years ago Weiss and others in the Red Carpet Corridor Association (12 towns along the 90 miles between Joliet and Towanda, north of Bloomington) conceived the idea of a K-Mine Museum in Godley’s unused former city hall. Volunteers from the Route 66 Association of Illinois came down two weekends in a row for carpentry, painting, caulking windows and clearing refuse. One person donated roof shingles and the local park district installed them.

The project still needs a new raised concrete floor, furnace, heater and lights (estimated at $8,000 to $10,000), someone to install them, and a grant writer, Weiss said. Mack, who is a former police officer for the town, said she would also like volunteers who can staff the museum a couple of days a week and Saturday or Sunday, especially people who could nudge oral histories – and potential exhibit pieces – out of visitors who sign the guest register.

Monica Mack and the K-Mine Museum in Godley, Illinois.

Already, Mack has pieces of coal as well as photos, maps showing locations of 19th century area mineshafts, 1920s soap canisters and coffee cans, and coins – script – used in the company store of the nearby Torino mine. She said she thinks miners were paid in both cash and script. It was a difficult life, with families moving to follow coal supply in various mines, she said.

Once the office at the Mazonia/ Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife area further down Route 53 closes due to state budget cuts, the museum could also be a place for hobbyists to pick up fossil hunting permits, Mack said. The 1,017-acre Mazonia site now includes grassland, woodlands and 200 ponds and lakes, but from 1951 through 1970, it was surface-mined by Peabody Coal Company. Each seam of coal is actually compressed and fossilized prehistoric forest; each 20- to 60-foot shale bed in between is the period when the sea flooded the swamplands and forests, according to the web site of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Surface mining turned over layers of shale to expose fossils such as ferns, horseshoe crabs and even a jellyfish-like “Tully Monster,” which is found only at Mazonia.
People interested in volunteering should contact Mack at irisheyeslabs@ yahoo.com.

Further south on Interstate 55, The Mill restaurant at 738 S. Washington St. in Lincoln also needs plumbing, electrical wiring, HVAC work, and someone who has worked with museums to consult on a volunteer basis, said Geoff Ladd, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County in a telephone interview.

Volunteers have already put roughly $50,000 worth of in-kind work into The Mill, including a new roof and peeling six or seven layers of tile and carpet to reach the original floor, Ladd said. Weiss and the Route 66 Association repaired the original blades of its Dutch-style windmill.

Ladd estimates restoration will take another two years, after which The Mill will be a museum. Originally opened in 1929, the Dutch-themed restaurant served sandwiches 24 hours a day. In the 1940s, new owners added a barroom and dance floor and painted its exterior barn-red.

Tourism has brought $30 million to Logan County in recent years, Ladd said. Last year the hotel tax was up 17 percent and this year so far 12 percent, from a mix of nearby residents, Europeans, and sports travelers, he said.

Route 66 is the top draw, he said, followed by Abraham Lincoln sites, hence the slogan “Walk in Lincoln’s footsteps, ride on America’s road,” on the county’s tourism web site, www.abe66.com. Its logo shows the 16th President riding the Route in a convertible.

Also in Lincoln is the Postville Courthouse, a recreation of the venue he visited as a circuit riding lawyer in the 1840s. The intimate Lincoln College Museum has artifacts from his Springfield home, his campaigns and the Civil War.

Ten miles north of Lincoln on the way back to Chicago, Atlanta, IL (population 1680) has seen two new shops open in the last two years because of the Paul Bunyan statue on Arch Street, its Route 66 thoroughfare. One store sells Route 66 memorabilia and the other offers work from local crafts people: homemade jewelry, candy, wrought iron, handmade porcelain dolls, quilts.

“We took what was otherwise a boarded up storefront, which now houses these 18 craftspeople,” said Bill Thomas, a director of the Atlanta Betterment Fund, whose primary goal “is to leverage Route 66 as a means of developing the tourism industry which helps our business.”

Using 2008 as the baseline, sales tax revenue in the city is up 43 percent for the five primary months of April-August, “and we know nothing else has changed in the town, so we know it is attributed to tourists.”
The 19-foot statue, which holds a hot dog, comes from the former Bunyon’s restaurant (their spelling) in Cicero. When Weiss heard it was about to be sold, he pleaded with the owner to let it stay in Illinois if he could find it a home, Thomas said in a telephone interview. The owners turned down a five-figure offer to lease it to Atlanta long-term, he said.

“It’s an incredible draw, people from all over the world come just to have their picture taken with it,” he said. It’s nothing to have people from Italy, Germany. Today I saw people from Dubai and Senegal.”
The giant stands across Arch Street from the Palms Grill Café, so named after its original 1934 owner visited California. Bingo and “blue plate specials” with meat and two or three side dishes, along with fried bologna and fried Spam sandwiches, complete the ’30s experience of the café, which re-opened in 2009. Illinois State Fair-winning pies are a modern-day addition.

Thomas was the state fair grand champion and readily shares his piecrust recipe. Lumi Bekteshi, a Macedonian immigrant who now runs the restaurant with her husband, used this piecrust to win blue ribbons for peach and apple, along with a third place for cherry.

Earlier this summer, volunteers painted the Bunyon statue. The next project is an eighth-mile stretch of 18- foot wide concrete, the original 1924 Route 66 alignment at Atlanta’s north edge. The project needs people to pull up brush and weeds before it can be in-terpreted as an outdoor exhibit of the Atlanta Museum, complete with a trail through prairie grass and wildflowers.

“We want people to be able to get out of their cars and walk along that stretch of concrete, feel like what it would be like to walk along in 1966,” said Thomas, a former junior high school history/social studies teacher and elementary school principal who now designs and produces online training courses for corporations and government. He remembers he first became enamored of history when he saw a 15th century explorer depicted on his fourth grade textbook.

Still to come, Thomas envisions an 1891 residence restored inside and out as a rooming house. Another possibility is a 200-seat theater.

“There’s one simple principle we keep repeating: to recreate the experience from the past that will attract people,” Thomas said.

“People want to relive the way it used to be on Route 66, what you experience when you go to the Palms Grill Café, which then leads me to believe they will spend the night in a rooming house from the 1940s before there were lots of motels. So if we give people a place to stay and a place to eat, we can give them entertainment by restoring the Palace Theater, which opened in 1947.”
Prospective volunteers can reach him at wthomas@teleologic.net.

Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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