Oct 14

“Gateway to Route 66”; Joliet, Illinois; Blues Brothers

Joliet MuseumAlthough Joliet’s claim as the “Gateway to Route 66” may be stretching the point, the town does, indeed, offer a lot more of a feel for the Mother Road than Chicago.  We had a busy day planned here and our first stop was the Visitor Center which shares a building with the Joliet Historical Museum.  The building was crowded with people attending a luncheon prepared by the Culinary Institute and it was obvious that this was a very popular event!

There was also a lot happening in the town as we made our way to the Visitor Center.  It seemed they were repairing all the major streets.  Sidewalks were blocked off and huge equipment was scraping and paving.  Tucks were everywhere, beeping as they backed up  … it was quite chaotic!   As we neared the Visitor Center small white flakes drifted on us from above like snowflakes.  No one seemed to know what it was but it looked like small pieces of Styrofoam!

A member of the Visitors Center supplied us with maps and brochures and gave us a briefing on what to expect along Route 66 in Illinois.

He was a fund of information including advising us which sections of the Historic Route 66 we should avoid when pulling the RV Trailer.  He also told us about a Route 66 Diner just around the corner that served “comfort food” and we decided to eat there, despite the fact that the meal served by the Culinary Institute looked delicious!  We wanted to get “in the mood” and this sounded like a good place to start.

Blues Brothers

Before we left we couldn’t resist having our photo taken with the Blues Brothers in the lobby!

As we were heading out to lunch we met a young couple from Denmark getting ready to spend three weeks exploring Route 66 in a rent car.  We were looking forward to meeting people from all over the world on our journey!

Highlights of Joliet, Illinois

We walked a few blocks to Route 66 Diner  and shared home-made meatloaf and gravy, and Greek chicken breast with rice. Then we strolled around the block to the Rialto Square Theatre , a beautifully restored 1926 vaudeville theatre which reportedly has the largest hand-cut chandelier in the US.   We’ve mentioned time and again how nice it is to sightsee without huge crowds but there are also disadvantages.  In the off-season, tours of the theatre are only held on Tuesdays at 1:30pm and we were there on a Wednesday! All we could do was peer through the glass doors to get a glimpse of the chandelier and also admire the inner lobby which was fashioned after the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.  This is definitely worth a guided tour but we couldn’t wait a week before moving on.

Original Dair Queen StoreNeeding to walk off our lunch we decided to find the first Dairy Queen store which was opened in 1940 and served customers until the 1950’s.  We figured it would be a photo op and kept looking for a renovated building with a big DQ sign!  Despite having the address, we were unsuccessful until a resident from a furniture store pointed it out to us.   The run-down building was quite a disappointment and it was only when we got right up to it that we saw a plaque on the front wall and another on the sidewalk.  At least it will avoid demolition due to the City Council granting it historic status but it is a pity that nothing has been done to preserve the building.  As we stood on the sidewalk looking at the building we met a gentleman from Scotland – a retired math teacher – who was traveling Route 66 from Santa Rosa to Chicago.  He was flying home the next day but would be back next year to complete the Route!

Jake and ElwoodTo assuage our DQ disappointment, we followed our guide book’s advice and drove to an ice cream stand called Rich & Creamy for a delicious ice cream cone.  It’s not just the ice cream that draws people to the site.  In particular, Route 66’ers come to photograph the life size figures of the Blues Brothers on the roof!

We had one more stop before heading home and little did we realize this would be the highlight of the day!  The infamous Collins Street Prison  or, as it was called “The Castle”, was built in 1858 using prison labor.  It ceased to operate as a prison in 2002 and since then has been sitting vacant. Although the city is well aware that the Prison is a tourist attraction as well as a sought after venue for filmmakers and photographers, renovation of the inside of the building would cost millions of dollars and the funds are simply not available.

It may seem strange that a prison would be a highlight but there were several things that contributed to this.

Old Joliet PrisonFirst of all, the architecture.  This is a beautiful building – from the outside, anyway!  The 25ft walls are made from locally quarried limestone. In fact, it really does look more like a castle than a correctional institution.  Inside was another matter.  Conditions were grim and there was no running water or toilets in the cells as late as 1910. The prison population consisted of hardened criminals and murderers.

The second attraction is that the prison is famous as well as infamous!  If you saw the movie The Blues Brothers you may know that Joliet Jake’s release was filmed at this prison at the beginning of the movie. It is also the location for another movie Let’s Go to Prison as well as the first season of the TV series Prison Break.

Finally, it was the people we met there!  An Australian family of six in a rented RV traveling the length of Route 66 in eleven days!  Australia is an expensive country to live in so they were delighted to be able to travel cheaply here (except for all the tolls!).  RV rental cost $1800, they bought linens and other utensils as they needed them and even after paying for gas, food and sightseeing, they figured they got a great deal!  Gotta love those Aussies!

The other couple we met there (about the same age as us) had a fascinating story to tell us.  “Mike” was taking a trip down Memory Lane. He told us that he grew up right next door to the prison and, during his time here, the large parking area next to the prison had been filled with houses. In fact, he had parked his car in the exact spot where his house once stood.  We had wondered why someone chose to park in the middle of this huge vacant lot … and now we knew!

His grandparents had come to this area from Eastern Europe and in the early days they grew their own vegetables, kept animals, did not have running water, etc.  The house remained in the family through three generations, obviously being updated through the years.  We learned that prisoners were allowed to perform work outside the prison and his grandparents used this source of labor to cultivate their garden.  His grandmother would cook a delicious meal for the prisoners and there was always a waiting list to work at their house!  The other set of grandparents lived in a house – on the exact same street but on the other side of the prison!

We were fascinated to hear about his family and his young life spent living in the shadow of the prison.  We talked about how important it is to record our life, in some form or another, so that our children, grandchildren and future generations will have an understanding of their heritage.

trailer life 66By the end of the day we felt that we had truly experienced “The Gateway to Route 66”.  We looked forward to visiting other small towns along the way to learn more about America’s past.  But what made it even more special was that we had an opportunity to connect with people from around the world as well as here in this small town.  It seemed that all of us were searching to touch the past and use our experience to make a difference to the future.

See Photos at:  http://goo.gl/nyV3Ig

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