Route 66 in the News

Museum Plans Taking Shape

2011-12-01 07:44:49

LITCHFIELD, Ill. - Martha Jackson realized the need for a public place to hold Litchfield’s rich history — especially the community’s combined story with Route 66 — while going through the belongings of her deceased husband, Dave Jackson.

During a lifetime at the local newspaper, the Litchfield News-Herald, Dave Jackson had collected everything from a 1908 high school yearbook to pictures of the first librarian at the local Carnegie library, buttons from the community’s 1953 centennial celebration to old milk bottles from the former Milnot factory.

“After he passed away and we began to break up his collection, we thought, ‘There should be a place to display this,’” Jackson said. “And if he had these things, other people probably have things, too.”

That thought gave birth to the Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center.

The newly formed Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center Association recently approved architectural plans for the planned center, and construction is expected to begin this spring.

The sleek, art-deco-inspired structure designed by John Fletcher will rise from the former Vic Suhling gas station, which used to greet travelers on one of the remaining original stretches of the Mother Road. The former station’s neon sign — “Vic” Suhling Gas for Less — is the only thing remaining on the lot in the 300 block of Historic Route 66.

The sign — already a tourist draw — will remain. The association plans to restore its neon.

‘Reason to stay’

Litchfield tourism coordinator Carol Burke said an anonymous donor has purchased the lot with plans to donate it to the association, which has filed paperwork to operate as a not-for-profit organization.

The group is waiting for approval before beginning efforts to raise the $500,000 needed to construct the building.

Route 66 historian and preservationist Jim Conkle said the Litchfield museum will join roughly two dozen others along the 2,448-mile route that stretches across eight states.

But Conkle said national and international Route 66 fans are excited about the news because no two museums are ever the same.

“You go to some that are really heavy on cars. Others have wedding dresses or mining history,” said Conkle, editor of The Route 66 Pulse. “You don’t just get Route 66 at these museums, but the culture of the area.

“Litchfield has always been an untapped resource. The Ariston (Cafe) is one of, if not the top, eating places from Chicago to Santa Monica. (There are) a couple nice structures on the road, the Honda dealership, but there was nothing to keep people in Litchfield. Now with the museum, they’ll have a reason to stay and enjoy the area.”

City administrator Andy Ritchie feels so strongly about the museum’s value that he’s using his vacation time in May to bike Route 66 as a fundraiser. Both corporate and individual pledges will go to fund the building.

“The project became near and dear to my heart,” said Ritchie, a Litchfield native. “I thought this is enough of a bizarre thing to do to raise awareness.”

Plenty to display

Along with memorabilia, the museum will house the Montgomery County Genealogical Society and provide space for Litchfield’s tourism and chamber of commerce offices.

City offices won’t relocate to the museum. But Burke said having a presence on Route 66 will allow her to interact with tourists.

“It’s rare for people visiting Litchfield to come to city hall,” she said of the downtown building where her office is. “(The museum) is an ideal opportunity to reach the public.”

Carol Berry, president of the genealogical society, said the museum will give the public easy access to the group’s collection of books, which range from family histories to rural school rosters, old atlases and plat books to marriage and death records.

“The combination will be a great asset to the Litchfield area in featuring the history of this area and the people involved in its beginnings,” Berry wrote in an email.

Burke said she has received many calls from people wanting to donate items to the museum.

The latest came from another Route 66 icon — the SkyView Drive-In Theatre, which has shown movies under the stars at 1500 N. Historic Route 66 every summer since 1951.

The drive-in is converting its projection room to a digital format this winter and offered all its 1970s-era equipment to the museum.

“You aren’t going to be able to get 35-millimeter film from the companies much longer, so all the equipment is going to be obsolete,” manager Carol Stuttle said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with the (old) equipment, so this works out nice.

“They can have the whole shebang, even the 35-millimeter of that dancing hot dog.”

Stuttle said film fans needn’t worry, though.

She already is working to get a digital version of the beloved film, which counts down the last 10 minutes until show time with parading ice cream cups, tight-rope-walking chocolate bars and a trained hot dog jumping into its bun on cue.

~Natalie Morris, The State Journal-Register


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