Route 66, the road built in the mid 20th century to connect Chicago to the Los Angeles area, became so cherished and revered for the mobility, progress, andÂ prosperity it gave the country that it acquired a number of nicknames, including “The Main Street of America.”
Dwight, Illinois, where our daytrip tour of Historic Route 66 has made a stop, enjoys two Main Streetsâ€”East Main Street and West Main Streetâ€”with a financial bank on each of them. East Main lies on the east side of the train tracks that run through the town and West Main parallels East Main on the west side of the tracks.
Dwight is a charming small town crammed with art, architecture, and history all within walking distance of the historic, but still in use, train depot. Bypassed by, but very near to, the old Route 66, Dwight now is a delightful stop on Historic Route 66. The good news is that Dwightâ€™s historic sites are still in use, and the better news is that weâ€™re allowed to visit them, not only on the outside, but also inside where people are working.
The bank on West Main Streetâ€”The First National Bankâ€”was designed and constructed by noted American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for Frank L. Smith, a prominent Dwight citizen. Snubbing the columns and classical architecture common to other banks of the era, Wright gave The First National Bank a sturdy and simple cut-stone Prairie School exterior. The Prairie School design, which Wright was associated with and used on many of his designs, held that a structure should appear to sprout naturally from the site.
The First National Bank of Dwight designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright believed that â€œa bank should convey its own, unique character rather than put on the airs of a temple of worship.â€ (1) The architecture of many, if not most, of the banks in his era was classical in design.
The bank, which was established in 1905, moved into this building in 1906. The structure was expanded in 1970 and again in 1989. Of the three banks Wright designed, it is the only one that is still in operation.
Wright also designed the interior of the building, which like the exterior, has the horizontal lines common to the Prairie School architectural style.
Part of the interior of the First National Bank of Dwight. Now one open space, not all of which is included in the photo, the original design consisted of two rooms, one for Smithâ€™s bank and the other for his real estate office.
On the other side of the railroad tracks on East Main Street, the Bank of Dwight, like so much of the Dwight community, also has a centuryâ€™s old history and interesting art. The bank, which opened in 1855, is the oldest state-chartered bank in Illinois still operating under its original charter.
The Bank of Dwight. Classical Greek Ionic columns with fluted capitals give the building a more traditional look than Wrightâ€™s design for the First National Bank of Dwight. The structure was built in 1910.
The ceiling in the lobby of the bank is windowed, allowing light to stream in and give the area an airy feeling.
A decorative, windowed dome brightens the lobby of the Bank of Dwight.
Insets inside the dome contain murals by Viennese artist Oskar Gross who, after being discovered by American Architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham, relocated to Chicago. The paintings depict country scenes that capture the strength and courage of the 19th-century settlers of the area.
Country scene mural by Viennese artist Oskar Gross in the dome of the Bank of Dwight building. The settlers who turned the prairies of the area into farms came to be called â€œsodbustersâ€ because prairie plants have deep roots making it difficult to prepare the soil for farming.
The invention of the steel-bladed plow in 1833 by John Lane, Sr. and the improvement, patenting, and marketing of it by John Deere in 1837 helped settlers cut through the deep roots of prairie flora and appropriate the rich prairie soil for farming.
A second Gross mural also shows a farmer and his horses at work.
Another country scene mural by Viennese artist Oskar Gross in the dome of the Bank of Dwight building. Like the other scene, with its dark, roiling clouds and muscular horses, Grossâ€™ mural seems to show nature as something hostile and in need of taming.
Back in the coach and heading to our next stop, our tour leader Bill Hinchcliff points out other historical sites, including a church built in 1857 that was attended by the Prince of Wales, the future King of England, in 1860. The Prince was in the area on a hunting expedition for wild birds.
In a few places, we pass broken chunks of pavement from the original Route 66 and drive past a drive-in restaurant that served Route 66 travelers. The drive-in resembles those I went to when I was young. A server would bring your order to the parked car on a tray and attach the tray to the driverâ€™s window. In some drive-ins, the order was placed through a speaker and at other places a server took your order.
Bill also tells us that Beatles legend Paul McCartney and girlfriend Nancy Shevell stopped at a restaurant in the area in August 2008 while driving a 1989 Ford Bronco across the country on Historic Route 66. Unfortunately, the place was closed. Not giving his name, McCartney called the phone number on the door and asked if the restaurant could be opened to serve them, but the proprietor refusedâ€”an action probably later regretted. McCartneyâ€™s trip on Illinois Historic Route 66 is documented, but Iâ€™m skeptical about the restaurant story.
Because travelers on Route 66 required a considerable amount of services and goods, such as food, lodging and gas, the area along Route 66 experienced economic prosperity during its heyday and a serious economic downturn as use of the road dwindled. In its prime as the Main Street of America, Route 66 users traveling as they were in non-fuel-efficient vehicles undoubtedly used lots of gasoline to get to their destinations. Many gas stations sprang up along the way to meet this need. All these years later, most of these stations in this section of the country are long gone, but a few stations remain as museum pieces to document Route 66 history.
We stop to visit a Route 66 historic gas station in Odell, a few miles southwest of Dwight.
A Standard Oil gas station along historic Route 66 in Odell, Illinois. Built in 1932, the station sold Standard Oil products for several years and Phillips 66 and Sinclair products at various times in succeeding years. The site has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1997.
By 1940, with ten gas stations in business along this section of Route 66, competition was fierce. The owner added service bays to the station, which kept it in business. The last owner did body work at the facility until 1999.
In a room off to the side of the entrance, in what was likely one of the stationâ€™s bays is an exhibit of goods typically used and sold at gas stations in the past.
Display of some of the items used and sold at gas stations of yesteryear
While todayâ€™s gas stations still carry some automotive needs in addition to gas, they often stock grocery items. Itâ€™s not unusual for today’s gas station patrons to run inside the station to get a cup of coffee or purchase a grocery item.
During the Route 66 era, male employees wearing a uniform, such as the shirt in the photo belonging to a worker named Ken, pumped gas, checked oil, wiped windshields and performed other services.
S & H Green stamps were one of the major retail purchase incentive programs while I was growing up, and many gas stations offered them. Customers received stamps when they purchased a product. The stamps were pasted into booklets, which were redeemed for products.
These days, incentive programs use cards or account numbers that give â€œpreferred customersâ€ discounts on products, frequent flyer miles or charge-card points, which can be redeemed for merchandise or experiences, such as travel.
A Standard Oil pump with a white crown indicated premium leaded gas. A red crown signified regular gas. After Standard Oil was declared a monopoly and the breakup of what was known as the â€œRockefeller Trustâ€ in 1911, there were six Standard Oil companies in the U.S. The one serving this area was Standard Oil of Indiana.
Standard Oil of Indiana later rebranded as Amoco, a company name in use in other parts of the country. Amoco merged with BP in 1998.
Route 66 gave people mobilityâ€”the ability to easily move from one place to another. As they moved out of the comfort zones of their home areas, they discovered romanceâ€”the stories of new places and new friends. The activity along Route 66 engendered jobs and brought prosperity to the country. Historic Route 66 is a geographically elongated museum that gives visitors a piece of recent United States history.
In being an elongated museum, Historic Route 66 is similar to the Great Wall of China, but there is a differenceâ€”The Great Wall of China memorializes a structure that kept people apart. Historic Route 66 as a museum celebrates a people discovering and developing a country.
Yet, although we learned and accomplished a lot from the Route 66 experience, through no fault of our own, we were naive about the effects of our actions on the environment during the Route 66 era. The motor vehicles that traversed Route 66, like those of our time, added carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and contributed to climate change. How much of the carbon dioxide that the motor vehicles that traversed Route 66 emitted is still in the atmosphere? According to the U.S. Department of Energyâ€™s Ask a Scientist web site:
The duration period for carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere is somewhere between 100 and 500 years. Obviously, not all carbon dioxide molecules will stay in the atmosphere that long, but on average the duration may be around 200-300 years. (2)
So, while we canâ€™t see it, most of the carbon dioxide emitted by the motor vehicles that traveled Route 66 is likely still in the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.
Our cars and buses emit carbon dioxide. Does this suggest we shouldnâ€™t visit Historic Route 66? No, thereâ€™s too much of value to see, learn, and experience in this inimitable museum that is Historic Route 66. Thereâ€™s too much enjoyment to be had in the experience.
But knowing how our choices and actions have affected the environment and reconciling it with our desire, our need, to have the knowledge and experience that Historic Route 66 can give, should encourage us to find ways to address and ameliorate climate change. Perhaps we need a new â€œGet your kicksâ€ song to stir us. Perhaps Historic Route 66 can add to the legacy of its Route 66 ancestor in being an agent of change for the country.
Previous Route 66 post
Oskar Gross portrait of General Douglas MacArthur (Commissioned by the Chicago Tribune in 1942)
Walking tour of Dwight, IL, with photos and description. Provides information for making Amtrak reservations if you want to visit Dwight.