Route 66 news notes: Steak N Egger, Hofmann Tower, doc film, Lagunitas Chicago and more

It’s 2014 and we’re baa-ack!  Yes, we know:  we’re a bit late in returning after the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-solstice-Christmas-Kwanzaa-New Year-MLK-Super Bowl hiatus, but sue us, we were having a good time with family and friends during the seemingly neverending holiday extravaganza.  Got a bit snoozy after all those meat comas and hibernated, sort of.  Then we got popsicled by the Polar Vortex and had to break out the serious down – brrrrr!  What a rude awakening.  But hey, at least we woke up before Groundhog Day, right?  Blame it on the chilly season:  we’re finally having a Real Winter again in Chicagoland after, what, maybe four decades?  Sounds right.  I knew that 50-below Eddie Bauer Polar Parka fit for the Himalayas would come in handy some day.

‘Tis the season to stay indoors and warm yourself with Route 66 dreams, if not road trip plans for later in the year.  That makes this the perfect time for some Route 66 metro Chicago news updates.  We have some tidbits to tease you before we get back to the big stuff in our next post.

Video poker on Route 66; where will it end??  Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska

Video poker on Route 66; where will it end??  Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska

Little things, for example, like the fact that the Steak N Egger on Route 66, a 24-hour diner that occupies the beautifully rehabbed former Snuffy’s building in McCook, IL, is now supporting itself with more than food.  Since apparently there’s not enough traffic along Joliet Road/Route 66 in that area (what with I-55 so close), the diner has given in to temptation and followed the new trend:  it’s installed video poker and video slot machines inside the restaurant.  Whoa.  We noticed this last month when we stopped by to take a closer look at the shameless plagiarism of the new McCook sign, which is at the corner of the diner’s parking lot.  The owners have even added a new Route 66-type, shield-shaped electric sign on the side of the building advertising the availability of these two forms of electronic gambling (see photo).  Aw, c’mon, folks, it’s one thing to offer Wi-Fi (which the diner conveniently added last year; thank you for that), but do we really need video poker with the all-day breakfast menu??  Seriously.  We wish the Steak N Egger well and hope that it attracts loads of new and returning customers soon, so that it can rethink offering vice with your coffee.

Of course, for that to happen, you’d probably need a lot more people traveling the McCook stretch of Historic Route 66 in the first place.  Maybe the new McCook sign will help.  It’s not like you can miss it if you’re there.

On a happier note, the Lyons Historical Commission and the local historical society have been trying for years to figure out how to preserve and restore the landmark Hofmann Tower, which stands on the banks of the Des Plaines River about a block north of the original 1926 path of Route 66.  Although the historical society occupied the tower for several years and had a museum inside, those folks eventually had to move out because the interior had deteriorated badly enough to make it dangerous (they moved to a space two blocks away inside the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, which is where the society’s files remain today).  Now there’s hope:  a local citizens’ group has organized the Hofmann Tower Restoration League and will undertake repairs as soon as they’ve raised enough money.  Best of luck to you, folks; we’ll be watching.  Too bad the same wasn’t done for the now-defunct Hofmann triangle building across the street from the tower (we’ll have more on that very, very soon, in our next post).

Hofmann Tower in Lyons, IL; photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska.  All rights reserved.

Hofmann Tower in Lyons, IL; photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska. All rights reserved.

More news:  the half-hour documentary film we produced a year ago on the Jewish West Side as part of our book research activities, Remembering Jewish Lawndale, has been garnering more attention lately.  Lawndale, of course, is the last Chicago neighborhood that Route 66 runs through before you hit the suburbs.  Its history isn’t well known to a lot of people who travel the route, so we aimed to fix that in part by making the film and providing screenings in the area, plus selling the DVD.  We did a presentation on Lawndale and film screening in late November for the Geographic Society of Chicago over at DePaul University’s student center on the Lincoln Park campus.  The presentation included a question and answer session afterwards with Dr. Irving Cutler, professor emeritus of geography at Chicago State University, who was a major source for us and appeared in the documentary.  Dr. Cutler, who grew up in Lawndale during the height of the Jewish West Side, has written several books about the Jews in Chicago and the West Side.  We’re always glad of his participation, and the GSC crowd seemed duly appreciative of his appearance (they liked the film, too).

Currently, we have interest from the Homan Square Foundation over on the historic Sears, Roebuck & Co. campus, which is itself located in North Lawndale.  Homan Square’s creation was a project that used preserving and repurposing the Sears campus to revive the neighborhood and build new housing in a severely affected area.  The Sears catalog and distribution facility that once stood there was a major employer in Lawndale; its closure, along with the vanishing of other major industry on the west side, severely affected the fate of the area, dealing the neighborhood an economic blow just as Route 66 itself was declining due to the spread of superhighways.  Needless to say, the folks over at Homan Square realize that the Jewish West Side was as much a part of Lawndale’s history as the original Millard & Decker subdivision, the greystone era, the wave of Czech immigration, the arrival of Route 66, the changing racial and ethnic components since 1950, and the recent expansion of the nearby Illinois Medical District.  So they’re excited about the screening.  We are, too!

And that reminds me:  we’ll also be checking up soon on the progress of Lagunitas Chicago’s Douglas Park brewery, which is undergoing construction in a former warehouse that originally belonged to Ryerson Steel, another former Lawndale employer.  Lagunitas Chicago is at 18th and Rockwell Avenue, which, if you recall, is about four blocks south of both Route 66 and the spot where racetrack owner Edward J. O’Hare, lawyer, federal informant, and unwilling front man for Al Capone, was shot to death by assassins unknown on November 8, 1939 (that may have been the only mob hit on U.S. Route 66 in Illinois, but we could be wrong).

Lagunitas Chicago staff bragging on their new local-spin T-shirts.  Love 'em!!  Photo courtesy Lagunitas Brewing Co., Petaluma, CA and Chicago, IL

Proud Lagunitas Chicago brewery staff seem mighty happy bragging on their new local-spin T-shirts. Love ’em!! Photo courtesy of Lagunitas Brewing Co., Petaluma, CA and Chicago, IL

Begun in California by a Chicago guy, craft beer maker Lagunitas Brewing Co. will double its manufacturing capacity nationwide with the completion of this facility able to distribute its brew to the eastern U.S. from here – and there will be a new brewpub inside, too, which we just can’t wait to see.  That will be great because Lawndale and Douglas Park really need another good bar and grill, and a craft-beer brewpub just might be sexy enough to attract customers from the nearby steadily expanding Illinois Medical District, which has been encroaching on the northeastern edge of Douglas Park for some time.

The brewhouse installation was going fine all autumn, per the company’s blog and CEO Tony Magee’s Twitter feed (we actually drove by to check out the place in October; things seemed to be moving along nicely), and the first batch of beer should have been started by early November.  Construction of the brewpub (right in the middle of the brewery – !) has been taking longer, due mostly to delays that happened earlier last spring, such as the additional sprinkler requirements that fire department inspectors requested.  However, the new brewhouse manager – a gal from Minnesota, no less – should have relocated here by now.  Just in time to feel the Polar Vortex here in Chicago (welcome!  Hope you brought your down along).  We’ll be updating you on Lagunitas Chicago’s particulars soon as we have the details.  And BTW, we love what they’ve done with their T-shirts:  they’re a riff on the Chicago flag.  Too much!  Photo later.

Until next time, keep those down booties handy, y’all.

Your Route 66 snow bunny,



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