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Joe's on 66

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is looking for stories about the famed highway. In this April 14, 1994, file photo, Joe Brown has given his six-month-old diner Joe’s On 66, a nostalgic feel.

Route 66 was ‘a microcosm of America.’ Now, preservationists want to collect its stories.

“Get your kicks on Route 66,” Nat King Cole famously sang in 1946 about one of the United States’ first highways. The iconic road, which stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, figures prominently in pop culture, appearing in music, television and Disney/Pixar films.

Now, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is honoring the highway’s past by collecting stories and photos from people who traveled along the route, all ahead of its centennial in 2026 and with the hope of elevating the stories of overlooked groups.

“There are stories of Native Americans on Route 66, of Black Americans, immigrant stories, Latinx and Mexican Americans on Route 66. Those are some of the stories that have not really been told,” said Amy Webb, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust. “What we want to do as Route 66 is coming up on its second century and celebrating its centennial is to really kind of expand that narrative.”

The National Trust, a nonprofit that works to save the country’s historic sites, announced last month the launch of its “Preserve Route 66: Share Your Story” campaign, which aims to gather 2,026 stories for the highway’s centennial.

Whether you’re a historian or regular road tripper, you can submit pictures and memories in the form of a few sentences at a submission portal on the National Trust’s website. Currently, 80 submissions are featured on the website, with more being submitted daily, Webb said.

The stories will be used to develop an interactive map for the centennial, which will also include information from state preservation offices and the National Parks Service.

“Our hope is that this map will actually be a really powerful preservation tool to help people understand what exists on Route 66 and also to understand what’s been lost on Route 66,” she said.



Joliet Route 66 Diner

People gather outside The Joliet Route 66 Diner for a ribbon cutting to mark the renaming of the Joliet Restaurant as part of a Destination Marketing program for downtown Joliet Thursday, July 26, 2012, at 22 W. Clinton St. in Joliet.

Matthew Grotto/Sun-Times Media Sun-Times Media

Route 66, at 2,440 miles long, was designated as the nation’s first-ever all-weather highway in 1926. By the 1950s, travel along what John Steinbeck called “the Mother Road” had become a popular American road trip, with stops along the way to see small towns, bright neon signs, truck stops and other roadside attractions. Some small towns opened shops, motels and gas stations, with the route pumping revenue into these areas.

The route, which Webb called a “microcosm of America,” was decommissioned in 1985 and was replaced by new interstate highways.

“It’s unfortunate that we continue to lose bits and pieces of Route 66, or whole buildings, every year,” Webb said. “In preservation, the only way that places get saved is that somebody cares about them, and we know that people care deeply about places on Route 66.”

Notably, Webb pointed out, narratives about Route 66 often failed to include people of color. So, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is making an effort to help tell those stories. One example is the Threatt Filling Station in Oklahoma, which was the only African American-owned filling station during the Jim Crow era on Route 66, Webb said.

In Chicago and beyond, some of the original establishments that popped up along Route 66 are at risk of being lost to development, Webb said.

“People in Chicago may know of places that they remember that aren’t here anymore and we want to hear those stories, too,” she said.

For many, Route 66 meant adventure. For Deddra Woywod, it means family.

Woywod, 50, is a longtime employee at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in south suburban Willowbrook, which opened in 1946. When she started her family, she quit her full-time job and started working on Route 66. The choice made sense for her.

“I got to raise all of my children and then I got to watch a lot of families raise theirs,” she said.

She recalled one gentleman, now in his 80s, who talks often about stopping at the restaurant as a teenager with a friend. He planned on hitchhiking his way to Hollwood and stardom. He never made it past the Chicken Basket.

“And that was pretty much it,” she said. “They decided their adventure was over because it was too much for them.”

“The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle,” in Collinsville, Illinois, is a roadside attraction near the route. The 70-foot-tall bottle, which sits atop a 100-foot steel tower and holds 100,000 gallons of water was built in 1949.

Judy DeMoisy, who leads the Catsup Bottle Preservation Group, described it as “this big old bottle of ketchup kind of in the middle of nowhere.”

She remembers trying to raise money to restore the landmark in the ’90s. Other volunteers would stand under the water tower with signs and sell shirts every Saturday for two years.

When asked, she said the National Trust’s efforts were important in the preservation of Route 66.



Dan Jedicka standing in front of Illinois State Bank of Chicago

Sun-Times writer Dan Jedicka at the start of Route 66 at Michigan and Jackson in the Loop, Oct. 29, 1987.

Klpitsch

“Oftentimes we lose things, things are demolished because people don’t speak up on how much they love it,” she said.

Contributing: Dorothy Hernandez

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