Route 66

If you’re looking for great displays of neon signs, mom-and-pop motels in the middle of nowhere, or kitschy Americana, do as the song says and “get your kicks on Route 66.”

Litchfield and Mount Olive

Between Springfield and Cahokia Mounds, the most interesting stretch of old Route 66 runs along the east side of the freeway for about a dozen miles, between Litchfield and Mount Olive. First stop is Litchfield, an old coal-mining center that is home to one of the best and most stylish Route 66 restaurants, the Ariston Café (413 N. Old Route 66, 217/324-2023, Tues.-Sun.), right in the heart of town at the junction of old Route 66 and Hwy-16. The food is a step or two up from the usual roadside fare, and the white linen and refined decor have earned it a spot in the Route 66 Hall of Fame. The rest of Litchfield reeks of the old road, with cafés, motor courts, and old billboards aplenty, plus another old “ozoner,” the Sky View Drive-In (217/324-4451) on old Route 66 one mile north of town.

Some seven miles southwest of Litchfield, the hamlet of Mount Olive (pop. 2,052) was a bustling coal-mining center in the early 20th century. It’s now a sleepy little community, where the only signs of its mining past are in the Union Miners Cemetery, along old Route 66 at the northwest edge of town. Near the rear is a granite shaft rising from an elaborate pedestal, which serves as a memorial to Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1830?-1930), the celebrated union activist (and namesake of the liberal-minded magazine) who was famous for her passionate oratory, like the phrase “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” She died here, possibly aged 100, while supporting a miners’ strike, and is buried nearby. Her grave is marked by a simple headstone.

For old-road fans, Mount Olive is also home to the oldest surviving service station on Route 66, the immaculate, restored (but no longer in business) Shell station downtown, long owned by Russell Soulsby.

Ariston Café (413 N. Old Route 66)
Sky View Drive-In (5700 North Belt Plaza)