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Bloomington lands a grant for new visitors center August 1, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions, History, Museums.
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As expected, the Illinois Office of Tourism officially pledged Wednesday to give Bloomington a $249,000 grant to help build a new visitors center downtown, according to WJBC radio. The museum will prominently feature Route 66 in its exhibits.

Illinois Tourism director Jen Hoelzel said the grant coincides with the office’s effort to bring more international tourists to Illinois. Hoelzel said international visitors talk about Route 66 “all the time.”

According to a news release from the McLean County Museum of History, the new visitors center will be called Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66: The Bloomington/Normal Visitors Center.

It will be located in the ground floor (basement) of the Museum. This 1,200 sq. ft. center has been designed to attract to downtown Bloomington the more than 40,000 people a year who come to Illinois to drive on Historic Route 66, including weekend travelers and thousands of European and Asian vacationers.

Here they will learn from and compare the experiences of Lincoln in his travels with those of automobilists during the golden days of Route 66. The exhibits will tell stories about dining, lodging, and travel.

Accompanying the exhibits will be a reception desk, an expanded Museum store, videos, and digital kiosks with tourist information. We expect to attract 20,000 people by our third year of operation; of those, we anticipate 5,000 will visit the Museum, thus significantly increasing the Museum’s earned income though sales and admissions.

The logo for the museum, reflecting the Route 66 and Lincoln links, is shown above.

The radio station reported:

Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Crystal said the new visitors center will help the Twin Cities benefit from international tourists.

“All of the visits that we are getting internationally, we want to get our share of that,” Howard said. “Up to this time, I don’t think we have. We need to pull them off the interstate and have them to stop in Bloomington-Normal. That is our goal.”

Hoelzle said Bloomington has the type of attractions international visitors want to see.

“There are two great brands in international tourism – Route 66 and Abraham Lincoln,” Hoelzel said. “They’re all right here in Bloomington.”

The visitors center is scheduled to open by spring.

In another report by WYZZ-TV, Bloomington is looking to a town to the north — Pontiac, Illinois — for its inspiration for drawing Route 66 tourists.

Count me as skeptical on Bloomington drawing 50,000 tourists a year at its visitors center anytime soon. Pontiac has had a full decade to cultivate a stream of visitors, and officials there say it didn’t happen overnight.

Pontiac also holds a sizable advantage with small-town hospitality — such as the mayor personally greeting tourists — that Bloomington will be hard-pressed to duplicate. Pontiac’s friendly attitude has won a lot of acclaim and repeat visitors over the years.

I praise Bloomington for hopping on the Route 66 bandwagon. But, as with another latecomer in Springfield, Missouri, it’s going to find it will have a lot of catching-up to do. Drawing those tourists is going to require tenacity and patience.

Red Oak II now offering overnight stays July 31, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Art, Attractions, Motels, People, Railroad.
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Red Oak II, a vivid re-creation of a now-vanished town by folk artist Lowell Davis, recently started offering overnight stays in cabins reclaimed from a former Route 66 motel in Duquesne, Missouri, reported the Joplin Globe in a feature story about Davis and his complex near Carthage, Missouri.

Also, a former mayor who resides at Red Oak II plans to install a small railroad depot at the complex.

And Jim Woestman, the former mayor of Carthage who built a home at what Davis calls “the back” of Red Oak II in which to retire. Davis has a “small project” in progress with Woestman: A train station.

“We have everything else but a train station,” Davis said. “We figured we needed one.”

Woestman also moved in the duplex cabins that once formed the Star Motel and Trailer Court at Newman and Duquesne roads in Duquesne, which he opened to vacationers for the first time earlier this month.

Neither the article nor the Red Oak II website contained more details about the cabins. However, a post July 23 on the Facebook page of Red Fork II said overnight stays were available and to call 417-237-0808 for more information.

We reported in March 2013 about Red Oak II moving the Star Motel cabins, including this photo. The cabins are 1920s-style duplexes that actually were built in the 1970s.

On a side note, the Globe article mentions Red Oak II was inspired by the small town of Red Oak on Route 66 northeast of Carthage. However, I’ve found no records of a town by that name in any reference materials about Route 66.

However, the small settlement of Red Oak may be found on State Highway YY and County Road 2032 in rural La Russell, Missouri. It is essentially a ghost town, but it does have a few remaining houses and a church, which you can see in this Google Street View image:

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The old Red Oak sits about 2.8 miles north of Highway 96, which is old Route 66 in that part of Missouri.

(Hat tip: Ron Hart)


Will Oscar Mayer buy the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle? July 31, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions, Businesses, History.
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Several media outlets in the St. Louis area reported the Oscar Mayer brand is interested in buying the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle, which went up for sale earlier this month. However, at least one metro-east news website regarded the reports with skepticism.

The speculation was fueled by Oscar Mayer’s famous Wienermobile making an appearance at the Collinsville, Illinois, landmark this week after learning the water tower and adjoining warehouse property were for sale for $500,000.

Then the Riverfront Times, based in St. Louis, received a statement from the company Tuesday:

Oscar Mayer heard that the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle was for sale, so we just had to send out the Wienermobile to check it out. With six large hot dogs on wheels traveling across the country all year, we could use a worthy condiment.

The Consumerist website also got Oscar Mayer to confirm the company’s interest. A company rep said:

“The brand has been in touch with the bottle’s owner, and while they’re still in the early exploratory stage, both parties are very excited about the possibility.”

But the Metro Independent, one of the first outlets to report the landmark being for sale, labeled the Oscar Mayer interest as “premature”:

But Oscar Mayer is not ready to comment on their interest in the water tower and have not contacted the bottle’s owner, Bethel-Eckert Enterprises Inc. Larry Eckert, co-owner of Bethel-Eckert, said his only contact with any company representative was for permission to use an image of the Wienermobile with the catsup bottle in the background.

However, a media report surfaced Tuesday quoting a spokesperson saying both parties were excited about the possibility of a purchase. When contacted by The Metro Independent, a different Oscar Meyer spokesperson said the company would not comment further than the initial press release. The quote was later removed from the story.

It’s possible Oscar Mayer is negotiating with Bethel-Eckert, but with the somewhat-tardy instructions to keep statements on the lowdown until a deal is reached.

The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle sits near the site of a former Brooks Catsup factory. The 100,000-gallon water tower, painted to resemble a Brooks ketchup bottle, was built in 1949.

Brooks moved its operations to Indiana, but the big bottle remained. A preservation group restored it in 1995, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle sits about two miles south of the nearest alignment of Route 66 at Beltline Road in Collinsville. But it remains a popular side trip for Route 66 travelers.

(Image of the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle by Erin and Lance Willett via Flickr)

Fran Houser puts her Sunflower Station up for sale July 30, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Businesses, Gas stations, People, Restaurants.
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Fran Houser, former owner of the Route 66 landmark Midpoint Cafe and Gift Shop in Adrian, Texas, has put her western-themed antiques and crafts store, Sunflower Station, up for sale so she can spend more time with family members out west.

Houser started Sunflower Station two years ago after she sold the Midpoint to Dennis Purschwitz, who continues to run the restaurant and shop today. Because the store was next door in a long-closed 1930s gas station, it enabled her to visit with longtime customers of the restaurant.

She initially planned to run the store just two to three days a week. But it proved more popular than anticipated, and she was forced to extend her hours.

“Had I known it would have done that well, I would have started it years ago and hired someone else to be behind the grill of the Midpoint,” she laughed.

“I’ve had a wonderful two years there,” she said. “But my family wants me to be available when they do things. I want someone there who appreciates travelers on Route 66. It’s been a work of love.”

When she ran the Midpoint, Houser attracted worldwide notice for the the restaurant’s hospitality and its delicious “ugly crust pies.” Houser gained more fame when she became as an inspiration to the Flo character in the original Disney-Pixar “Cars” movie in 2006.

The building contains three rooms, and with a negotiable asking price of $195,000. Those interested in the property should call Houser at 806-538-6380.

(Images courtesy of Fran Houser)

Strike up the Band-Box July 30, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in History, Music, Preservation, Restaurants.
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Jo Ellis, a columnist for the Joplin Globe newspaper, reported about a sometimes-overlooked but cherished part of the history of Carthage, Missouri — the rare Chicago Coin’s Band-Box, also known as “Strike Up the Band,” in the Pancake Hut restaurant along Route 66.

The Band-Box is a coin-operated miniature, robotic big band that’s been in Carthage for about 60 years. It first was installed at Red’s Diner, Ray’s Cafe, and finally Wanda Baugh’s Pancake Hut. Even though it moved around a bit, it always has been on Route 66.

The Chicago Coin’s Band-Box was manufactured only from 1950 to 1952. It is in reality a remote wall-mounted speaker for a jukebox, and it was activated when a coin was inserted into the jukebox and a selection was made. The original miniature figures were made of sponge rubber. Dressed in stylish green jackets and suave bow ties, they sported the slicked-down hair style of the big-band era.

When the sponge rubber deteriorated, Baugh replaced the original musicians with similar sized figures. She found GI Joe dolls, discarded their camo and dressed them in Ken’s spiffy (Barbie doll) clothes. She also was able to replace the background drop, an ocean scene with waving palm trees, through Brad Frank Restorations in Chatsworth, California.

Here’s a video of the Band-Box in action, with the audio swapped out because of a television show blaring nearby:

Here’s another one in British Columbia:

Gene Autry and Clark Gable both saw the Carthage Band-Box when they dined at the restaurant after a night in the nearby Boots Motel, also a Route 66 icon.

A full restoration would cost about $5,500. Frank has offered to donate labor for the restoration if Baugh can raise the money for parts. Frank is supposed to return to Carthage in November to do more work on the machine; hope springs eternal that someone can come up with the cash for the full makeover.

Did Springfield, Missouri, miss the boat in promoting Route 66? July 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions, Restaurants, Towns.
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A few days ago, the Springfield News-Leader published a long, soul-searching piece titled “Selling 66″ that asks the question: Has Springfield, Missouri, done a good job promoting Route 66?

If you have to ask, you know the answer.

Springfield has realized its error and is trying new things to bring tourists, including the future Birthplace of Route 66 Roadside Park. And the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival seems to be growing fast.

The article is worth reading in full, including its cool photos. But here are a few newsworthy highlights and observations:

  • The Route 66 Economic Impact Study of 2011, as I predicted, opened a lot of eyes about how financially viable the Mother Road is. The conservative number of $132 million in annual tourism spending on Route 66 surprises a lot of people. Naturally, folks want a piece of that.
  • City Manager Greg Burris said not only tourists, but locals said Springfield wasn’t tapping its Route 66 potential.
  • Jackie and Larry Horton, tourists from Newcastle, England, said Missouri doesn’t promote the route as well as Oklahoma and other western states.
  • In a few weeks, an 18-foot-tall neon sign will be installed at the Convention and Visitor Bureau’s Route 66 center on St. Louis Street.
  • History Museum on the Square’s Route 66 show last year drew an “unprecedented” 10,000 visitors in six months. The museum is planning a permanent Route 66 exhibit after it finishes a $20 million renovation.
  • The number of visitors to the Route 66 Visitors Center doubled from 2012 to 2013 because officials added Route 66 signage.
  • Best Western Rail Haven owner Gordon Elliot plans to build a replica of the long-gone Red’s Giant Hamburg restaurant.

I suspect when the Route 66 roadside park and other such projects are finished, Springfield — and a lot of businesses there — will be very happy it took the trouble to do so.

(Image from the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven in Springfield, Mo., by the Missouri Department of Tourism via Flickr)

Video summarizes “Route 66: The Road Ahead” conference July 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Events, Preservation.
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A few days ago, the World Monuments Fund uploaded this eight-minute video that summarizes the “Route 66: The Road Ahead” conference that took place in November at a hotel near Disney’s Cars Land in California.

You’ll probably see a few familiar faces from Route 66, including Dawn Welch at the Rock Cafe, Kevin Mueller at the Blue Swallow Motel, Allan Affeldt at La Posada, Bill Thomas of the Palms Grill Cafe, and Kaisa Barthuli of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. The video also touts the Route 66 Economic Impact Study, as it should.

Alas, you’ll also see a few things that are no more, including Bill Shea, who died in December, and the Bell gas station in Tulsa, which was demolished (but the sign saved) in March 2013.

Route 66: The Road Ahead from World Monuments Fund on Vimeo.

(Image of brick Route 66 near Auburn, Ill., by Jim Grey via Flickr)

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