I decided to take a break today from Route 66. I'd spotted a cluster of little circles I had drawn on the Illinois page of my Rand-McNally and decided I should go investigate them. I motored into southern Illinois, specifically to the town of Collinsville. I found my way to the Brooks Foods plant and marveled at their water tower. It's shaped like a catsup bottle (that's catsup, not ketchup - I checked) and makes for a rather impressive display. Next I visited Chester, birthplace of Elzie Crisler Segar, the man who created Popeye. In a small park on the shores of the mighty Mississippi, a statue of the spinach-eating sailor man himself stands as a fitting tribute to his creator.
I also stopped in a little burg by the name of Sparta, Illinois. I had it circled on my map but couldn't find in my notes just what I hoped to see there. I figured I'd stop in the local visitor's center or chamber of commerce; surely they'd be able to quickly fill me in on the town's high spots. I found the welcome center, as they call it, and ended up spending quite a bit of time with the woman doing the welcoming. She pulled out some pamphlets with pictures of local attractions and began a recital, "Here's a picture of the youth center; now that's just down Main Street here." "No," I said. "I don't think that was it." "Well, now, just one block over is the hospital and of course the library is just across the street from it." "No, those don't ring a bell; is there an alligator farm nearby?" Finally, she mentioned in passing that In the Heat of the Night was filmed here. "That's it!" I exclaimed, at once relieved and disappointed.
It made for a fine day's drive, did southern Illinois. It's beautiful country, all rolling hills and farmland. Really quite charming.
Route 66 in St. Louis, along Gravois, Chippewa, and Watson, is just loaded with period architecture: apartment buildings, vintage drugstores, an old doughnut stand, and a cool strip of motor courts. The best, by far, of these is the Coral Courts. I would've loved to have stayed there but my friends, Cristi and Tim Sullivan, proud parents of two darn cute kids, Megan and Andrew, were graciously putting me up for a couple of nights gratis, an offer I was not in a position to refuse. The streamlined Coral Court was built in 1941, all rounded corners and glass brick with tan- and maroon-tiled walls. Each tiny building has its own enclosed garage and the grounds are shady from the many oak trees scattered about. As 66 became less travelled by tourists, many of the business along this stretch that catered to travellers folded or moved, but not the Coral Court. It hung in there, a little faded perhaps, but still a beauty. And thus it remains today. It's in remarkably good shape and, at $35 a night, sure beats a Ramada or Holiday Inn.
A bit east of Coral Court is a St. Louis, and a Route 66, institution, Ted Drewe's Frozen Custard Stand. Ted Sr. began the business in 1929, continually experimenting with the recipe until he was satisfied. The first stand closed before long but Drewes tried again in 1931, opening a location on Grand Avenue, not far from Gravois (or Route 66). Business took off and it wasn't long before Drewes opened the very location you can still visit on Chippewa (also Route 66). The custard is vanilla but you can get sundaes, shakes, and concretes (ice cream with whatever you want mixed in it). The place serves nothing but ice cream and even though several service windows line the front of the building, you still have to queue up on a warm summer night.
I attended a showing of Patriot Games at the 66 Park In theatre, which dates from 1948. Patriot Games wasn't on my list of must-sees but I'd watch Cannonball Run IV if it was showing at a drive-in. This one is a bit tattered but on a warm summer's night with a million stars overhead, it's still able to provide a fine evening at the movies. I urge you to check it out when you're in St. Louis.
Continue on the American Odyssey.
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