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City to preserve treasured Tropics landmark sign

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[May 17, 2014]  LINCOLN - The city of Lincoln and the county of Logan have many things to be proud of, among them and high on that list are its Abraham Lincoln and Route 66 heritage.

Over the years, Route 66 has not lost its appeal to world travelers.  People come from far and wide to make the trip from Chicago to California via the Mother Road.  While Route 66 lost its luster for the commercial transit system, for tourists it is a “blue highway,” as intriguing today as it was ‘way back when.’

Route 66 spurred many unique businesses in its heyday, including several in the Logan County area.  Those who remember the early days have fond recollections of places such as the Mill, the Blue Inn, and the Tropics Restaurant.

The Blue Inn is long since gone; and the Mill, while shut down, is in the process of rehabilitation for use as a museum.  It was hoped that the Tropics, which has been closed for several years might be bought and reopened one day.  Recently, the property where the once popular eatery stands sold.  To date, no one is saying what type of business it will be, but that the building will be demolished and some new business will take its place. 

The Tropics was originally owned by Vince Schwenohoa, the son of Logan County’s famous, if not infamous Coonhound Johnny.  Schwenohoa brought the Tiki style lounge and restaurant to Lincoln in memory of time he spent in the military when he was stationed in Hawaii and California.

The Tropics was a thriving business when Route 66 was the only byway from Chicago to Saint Louis.  The development of Interstate-55 skirted around the cities of Lincoln, Atlanta and Elkhart.  As a result, business fell off for places such as the Tropics, the Palm’s Grill and Pig Hip restaurants.  Also contributing to the decline of favored local hotspots, new fast food eateries went up near interstate exits.

People traveling were in a hurry and seldom did they take the time to go into a city, when everything they needed stood within a few hundred yards of the interstate.  Because of this restaurants such as the Tropics and full service gas stations came to rely on local patronage only, and often times that was not enough to keep them going.

Due to its local popularity, the Tropics held on for a lot longer than many others.  However, the time finally came when it was no longer affordable to keep the doors open.  The restaurant, which opened its doors in the 1950’s changed hands several times before finally closing completely in the early 2000’s.

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The building had stood vacant and for sale over a decade, but the property sold recently. 

Mayor Keith Snyder learned that the former owners wished to do something to preserve the landmark Tropics neon sign. 

The children of the Lew and Bev Johnson family agreed to donate the sign to the city with the stipulation it had to be removed from the property.  The city graciously accepted their gift.

Crews were on the scene shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday to begin the tedious task of taking the sign down from its two-post pedestal for relocation to temporary shelter for safe keeping.

Several members of the Johnson family including their daughter and two sons were on hand Wednesday when the sign came down.  It was clearly an emotional moment for all of them.

In its glory days the sign was covered in neon and lit up the night sky drawing patrons in to a friendly Tiki party atmosphere inside. 

Recently city alderman Tom O’Donohue said that the Route 66 heritage is important to the Lincoln and Logan County communities.  Route 66 draws tourists into the community and that traffic supports the financial well-being of the community.  The city, along with the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County, wants to continue drawing traffic into this area and to do so they must preserve what is here.

In the city’s 2014-15 fiscal year budget there is money for community improvement projects.  Listed under that category is a dollar figure that can be spent on the Tropics sign.  O’Donohue said that redoing all the neon on the sign and bringing it back to its former glory is going to be an expensive venture. 

Whether or not the city has enough money in the current budget to do the work right away is unknown.  The sign has been safely stored on city property while continuing work toward its restoration.

While the city cannot restore the Tropics, it can do the next best thing; restore and preserve the sign.


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