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Alums are driving force in preserving Route 66

Route 66 was the first road to connect the Midwest to the West. Its 2,448 miles linked an archipelago of towns that previously depended on unreliable muddy tracks and wooden plank roads. Although only small sections of the original road remain, 95 percent of the final alignment can still be driven and still attracts international visitors.

Preserving the iconic piece of Americana requires a labor of love, as two Illinois State graduates and employees can attest. The passion and projects of Terri Ryburn ’85, M.S. ’88, D.A. ’99; and Fred Walk, M.S. ’78, have formed a significant and lasting intersection between Route 66 and the University.

Ryburn is rebirthing a 1930s-era business, Sprague’s Super Service, that graced what once was the original alignment of Route 66 in Bloomington-Normal. The administrator, who left the University in 2005 after 26 years, has returned to a full-time, temporary position to help fund a $1 million-plus restoration of the dilapidated icon on the historic highway.

Walk is a history professor working to preserve an abandoned section of the iconic road in the village of Towanda, just a few miles north of Ryburn’s reclamation project. Over the last 15 years, Walk has transformed a 2.5-mile stretch of cracked pavement into a memorial parkway that attracts 2,000-plus tourists a year and provides the village a place for walking, biking, and meditating on what once was.

Ryburn and Walk have found ways to tie their efforts to Illinois State classrooms. Both are part of a general effort to preserve Route 66 that emerged in the early 1990s, less than a decade after the road was replaced completely by interstate highways. Those efforts have brought millions of dollars in tourist revenue to small towns across the United States, including Towanda and Pontiac, where the Illinois Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum is located.

Sprague’s Super Service then and now

Terri Ryburn is in the middle of a $1 million restoration of the former Sprague’s Super Service, an 83-year-old relic of Old Route 66.

“It helps Mom-and-Pop America an awful lot,” said John Weiss, an Illinois Route 66 historian and officer of the Route 66 Association of Illinois. “It has something for everybody. It goes from lakes to oceans, skyscrapers to deserts, Indian reservations, small towns, big cities. You name it, it is on 66.”

Ryburn’s love for the road was born in 1953 during a childhood road trip when she was just 5. Her family—mother, father, five (frequently carsick) children, and two hunting dogs—drove a Model A truck 40 mph on Route 66 from Bloomington to California.

“It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful—for the kids. Not so happy for the adults. My mother never liked to travel after that,” Ryburn said. “I joke that we must have looked like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath.”

The version of Route 66 that carried migrants fleeing economic hardship during the Great Depression, like those depicted in the John Steinbeck novel, was in the distant past by the time Ryburn’s family made its trek.

Route 66 began in 1926 as a 16-foot-wide, and only partly paved, two-lane road that crossed eight states from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. Known as “Bloody 66,” the original road had no speed limit and 90-degree turns, like “Deadman’s Curve” in Towanda. By the 1950s it had evolved into a safer, four-lane highway that bypassed Main Street America in many spots, portending its eventual replacement by interstates.

Oklahoma businessman Cyrus Avery is known as the “Father of Route 66.” His idea was to create an all-weather road to transport materials across the country.

“That’s why they built it, for commerce primarily. It was a bonus that people could travel to visit friends and relatives and then eventually take vacations along it,” said Ryburn, who has authored a guidebook on McLean County’s section of the road. She wrote a history of the Mother Road for her doctoral dissertation and remains a frequent traveler of the pavement etched in American consciousness by the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” and a TV show (Route 66).

In Illinois, State Road 4 was the main forerunner of Route 66. Several roads were cobbled together to create one route from Chicago to St. Louis. “They never built Route 66; they created it by attaching paved pieces of road with other paved pieces of road,” Weiss said.

Route 66 originally went through the middle of Bloomington-Normal, passing Illinois State University’s campus on its southward path. Businesses sprang up on busy sections of the road, including the nation’s first Steak ’n Shake. It opened in 1934 on Main Street in Normal.

General contractor William Sprague opened Sprague’s Super Service in 1931 at 305 Pine Street, which was then the main northern entrance to Normal. Unlike many businesses that closed as the route was altered, the service station survived long after Route 66 was rerouted to the beltline in 1941, bypassing the heart of the Twin Cities.

Fred Walk digs

Illinois State History Professor Fred Walk, left, gathers students and community members together every spring to help beautify the Route 66 parkway in Towanda.

Sprague’s building had several owners, becoming a gas station, restaurant, auto-shop, cab company, Greyhound bus stop, rental car and ambulance service, and bridal shop and catering business. When it opened there was a cafe, a little grocery, and two other gas stations nearby.

Ryburn purchased the two-story Tudor Revival building for $220,000 in 2006 and hopes to resurrect it as a café/theater/bed-and-breakfast on what is now a sleepy Normal street. She had her eyes on the 8,000-square-foot building for years and put in a couple of offers once it went up for sale. She was so surprised her second bid was accepted that she hadn’t bothered to tell her husband about her efforts to obtain their new home.

Persuading him was the easy part; reviving a Route 66 landmark, not so much. Ryburn has spent $90,000 of her own money to reroof the building, install storm windows, and complete other renovations, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of work yet to be done. She wants to knock down two additions built in the 1950s and 1960s. She needs to replace pipes from the 1930s, and the second floor needs a complete redo.

“It was really deteriorating badly when I bought it,” Ryburn said. She brought in Illinois State University interior design classes to redesign the first floor, and top floor—where she lives in the larger of two apartments—into a bed-and-breakfast.

The first floor is taking shape, but gathering dust. The former restaurant space is being turned into a coffee shop. A tea room with the tables set is ready to go in an adjacent room. A stage and lighting is set up for a community theater in a third room, but none of the spaces are ready for the public.

“I’m just hoping it’s not open posthumously. That’s my goal,” said Ryburn, who has obtained grants. She worked to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized by the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame, and as a local Normal landmark.

“The difficulty with owning an historical building is I have to restore it, not remodel it,” Ryburn said. “The exterior has to look as exactly the way it looked when it was built in 1930–31.”

Weiss is impressed with Ryburn’s efforts. He has worked on Illinois Route 66 preservation efforts for 20 years and has led volunteers to Ryburn’s home.

“This is probably the most elaborate restoration on an individual basis,” he said. “Usually these kinds of projects are taken on by some big banks with corporate sponsors. She didn’t have any of that. She just had a lot of guts.”

While Ryburn’s connection to Route 66 started during its heyday, Walk’s happened after its demise. In the 1990s, Walk drove past a barricaded section of the road in Towanda on his way to Normal Community High School, where he taught history and social studies.

“I thought something could be done here. This is a piece of Americana,” Walk said. The two-lane frontage road that Walk drove was the vibrant half of Route 66 in Towanda. The two southbound lanes didn’t survive the opening of Interstate 55 and became the corpse that Walk has mummified.

“When I-55 came through, that was pretty much the death knell of Old 66,” said Walk, whose closet-size office in Schroeder Hall is a display of Route 66 paraphernalia.

Travelers on that frontage road see the evolution of modern transportation in Towanda. To the east is a Union Pacific rail line. The Chicago to Alton rail line, which opened in the mid-1800s, once passed through and forged an alignment roughly followed by Route 66. It was a path beaten down by settlers who tread over trails traced by buffalo and Native Americans.

A faint rumbling of traffic to the west reveals Interstate 55. The highway that runs from Chicago to New Orleans replaced the 300 miles of Route 66 in Illinois. It was one of five interstates built in the 1960s and 1970s to replace the Mother Road, whose death in Illinois in 1977 preceded its overall denouement seven years later in Arizona.

“Now it is just so homogenized. There is no uniqueness about the interstate,” Walk said. “You got a much better sense of both the physical and cultural landscape when you were on old Route 66.”

Fred Walk with Route 66 volunteers

“It’s amazing for how many people there is this lure of Route 66, worldwide,” said Walk, pictured front row far left with his volunteers.

Walk figured Route 66 could be the hook to get his high school students motivated in civic engagement. He proposed the students place a memorial sign by the closed road.

“They didn’t quite see my vision,” Walk said with a laugh, recalling the initial response. “It was like, ‘Why are we out here? Just a barren stretch of road; there is nothing there.’”

Their attitudes changed once they learned more about Route 66’s importance nationally and in their backyard.

“After we did the sign, I started thinking we could do much more,” Walk said. He met with state officials about turning the road to nowhere into a parkway. There was one problem: The state planned to tear down an old bridge over Money Creek that would have cut the parkway in two.

Walk and the students launched a successful “save the bridge” campaign that upset the contractor who was to receive $80,000 to remove it. But they won over local politicians.

“I wanted to provide an avenue for my students to model for them how they could become activists and model that sense of activism whereby they could get involved in their community,” Walk said.

With the bridge saved, Walk, his students, and community volunteers created the parkway. They added benches, planted trees, poured concrete, built split-rail fences, created murals of every state where Route 66 passes through, installed classic Burma Shave signs that once dotted the roadway, and recorded the local history in brochures describing the diners and gas stations that went by the wayside with Route 66’s demise.

“The goal was to capture the cultural essence of this stretch of road,” he said.

Fifteen years later, the parkway known as the Historic Route 66: A Geographic Journey, is a tourist attraction and a local landmark. A scan of a logbook shows visitors from Australia, Brazil, Kenya, Japan, England, Quebec, and New York City.

“It’s amazing for how many people there is this lure of Route 66, worldwide,” said Walk, who uses the parkway as a tool to teach Illinois State history-social science education students about how they can get their future students civically engaged. Since joining the History Department in 2003, he and fellow History Professor Monica Noraian, Ph.D. ’07, have led a history-social science methodology class that emphasizes civic engagement for aspiring history-social science teachers. Among other activities, they annually take students to the Route 66 parkway to help with preservation efforts.

“What we are all about is providing avenues for our students and future teachers to become responsible, active, contributing citizens,” Walk said. “And that is the endgame.”

Editor’s note

Terri Ryburn, Fred Walk, and John Weiss provided much of the history of Route 66 in this story. Sources included Ryburn’s book, Route 66: Goin’ Somewhere (The Road in McLean County); Fred Walk’s 2002 article in Historic Illinois; and Rutgers University’s 2011 publication Route 66: Economic Impact Study.