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Cheryl Jett and Joe Sonderman

Books by Joe Sonderman and Cheryl Jett.

Authors’ reflections inspire travel over Route 66

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[August 04, 2014] 

LINCOLN - Joe Sonderman and Cheryl Jett stopped by the Atlanta Public Library Sunday, July 27, to discuss their favorite subject, Route 66. After being introduced by library co-director Rachel Neisler, the pair took their audience on a virtual tour of Route 66 as the roadway took shape in Illinois.

Sonderman is employed by the Missouri Department of Transportation and Jett is a retired music teacher.

Sonderman remembers as a child growing up in St. Louis, his family would always vacation at Lake of the Ozarks.

His father would gather the family in the car and drive straight through. Sonderman promised himself that when he grew up, he would stop and visit every town and landmark that appeared along the highway. That is exactly what he does. To him, the iconic Route 66 is not a way to get to a destination as quickly as possible, but traveling on what is left of it and learning about the history that surrounds the old road is part of his vacation.

When traveling with his family now, they never eat at chain restaurants and never stay at chain motels. In the early days of the highway, there was no uniformity along the route as there is today. “You never knew what cafes were in the next town or where you would sleep that night. It was part of the adventure,” he said.

Cheryl Jett grew up in Edwardsville and lived one block from Route 66. It always held a fascination for her. She was taught map reading by her parents, so when they traveled she was in the back seat navigating with a map in her lap.

The journey starts in front of the Chicago Art Institute with the iconic lions guarding the entrance on Michigan Avenue. This is where the original Route 66 started. In later years, the highway was extended a few blocks east to Lake Shore Drive.

Sonderman and Jett tagged teamed the narrative as they moved out of Chicago and into the southwest suburbs.

They both stressed that Route 66 is still accessible but you just have to find it. “Get off the interstate and drive a few miles into the small towns where the highway went. It’s still there if you know where to look,” Jett said.

She said, “People come from all over the world now to find that old piece of early 20th century Americana. It can be a very valuable tourist destination to the small towns along the route. Just look at what Atlanta has done to their Route 66 main street.”

Why was Route 66 so popular when it was first opened?

Joe and Cheryl ticked off the reasons the road became famous. Part of the reason is the very number 66. It was an unusual designation for a federal highway. In the early days of the highway program, all highways were numbered with the zero following the number -- 30, 40, and 50.

The governor of a Midwestern state wanted a federal highway to traverse his state. He got his wish and the next available number was 60. It had been originally planned to name the cross-country highway with that number, but since it was taken, the new road was named 66. Sonderman wondered about that happenstance, and recited all of the instances where 66 is used. “It just would not be the same if 60 had been the name of the Mother Road,” he said.

Also, Route 66 was the first highway to be marketed by the government. When it opened, the government sponsored a foot race from Los Angeles to Chicago to call attention to it. The race went on to New York with lots of Route 66 advertising along the way.

In the 1940’s, the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” came out and further cemented the name in the public’s consciousness. John Steinbeck’s classic “Grapes of Wrath” included references to 66.

In the 1960’s, the television series about Route 66 - a Corvette and two travelers - once again brought the highway mass media attention.

Lately, the notoriety of Route 66 has been publicized around the world, and towns along it have jumped on the bandwagon by emphasizing their link to the road. It is one of the most recognizable symbols of the United States, right up there with Coke and all sorts of computer companies.

One of the unique aspects of Route 66 in Illinois is that this state was the only one between Chicago and Los Angeles where the entire length of the road was paved when it first opened in 1926.

Sonderman said that the fascination with the road is not just about small towns, juke joints, and speak easies during prohibition; but about characters that inhabited the road. He has a special fondness for Bob Waldmire from Springfield who lived along the highway his entire life, sometimes in a converted school bus. Waldmire was an artist and writer, and a Route 66 icon in his own right.

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Another character was a Chicago businessman named Al Capone. He was said to hang out in the Riviera, an infamous roadhouse in the Joliet area.

One small town south of Springfield was noted for the enormous amount of sugar that was shipped into town. It seems that during Prohibition, Capone had a still in the area and used Route 66 as an easy wayfare to send the hooch that was produced to Chicago.

As we slide out of Chicago, every town seems to have a special story to tell about the years when Route 66 was the Main Street of America and each town’s main street. There are stories of restaurants, some still in existence after many decades like the Chicken Basket, the Ariston, and Steak and Shake. There are beautiful restorations of early buildings like the Rialto Theater in Joliet, and a period gas station that has been lovingly restored in Dwight.

One section of the old highway between Chatham and Auburn is still covered in brick, a pavement that was put in place in 1931.

Unfortunately, many of the fascinating buildings along the route have been destroyed, such as the Coliseum Ballroom in Benld, where some of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century appeared. Elwood and Mount Olive have tragedy as the backdrop for Route 66.

Route 66 eventually arrives at the Mississippi River and the Chain-of-Rocks Bridge takes it into Missouri.

There are more stories of the Mother Road west of the Big Muddy, but Joe Sonderman and Cheryl Jett are saving those for another day.

Sonderman and Jett have co-authored a book about Route 66 titled “Images of America: Route 66 in America.”

Joe Sonderman has just published a book “Postcards from Route 66.” It is filled with postcards that were produced throughout the history of the road. Some of them have been used and those are Sonderman’s favorites. “They tell a story, maybe even give a glimpse of history along the old highway by the people who traveled on it,” he said.

Jett has several books about Route 66 in Illinois including her recently published “Route 66 in Illinois.”

Sonderman and Jett like to travel and tell the story of Route 66, and especially Route 66 in Illinois. Their presentation is entertaining and informative, and was a wonderful way to spend part of a Sunday afternoon at the Atlanta Public Library.

Cheryl Jett:
Joe Sonderman:
Atlanta Public Library:

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