Hello again, fellow roadies! Welcome back for part 2 of last weekend’s road trip to the greater Bloomington-Normal area in Central Illinois that brought me, Joe and Keith in search of a picnic and maple sirup, among other things. The great irony of that statement is that we didn’t go into either Bloomington or Normal last weekend: instead, we focused on Funks Grove to the south of B-N and then hit Towanda and Lexington on the way back. And as you may have noticed in our last post, yours truly took plenty of pretty pictures.
Let’s take a look at a local map first, so that you can get your bearings. Going from northeast to southwest (westbound), Lexington and Towanda come first on Route 66, then Normal, then Bloomington, and then Shirley and Funks Grove. The next town over is Atlanta, where there has been significant preservation and renovation, but we’ll save that for another trip (ditto Bloomington-Normal and Shirley). If you look at the map below, Lexington is the first crescent-shaped bend on I-55 in the top right of the map, and Towanda is next flattened-crescent bend before you hit Normal. Funks Grove is toward the lower left, just above U.S. Route 136, at the oval light green patch that represents the Thaddeus Stubblefield Grove Nature Preserve and the other preserves of the ancient trees that make up the entire grove. Atlanta is the last shallow crescent on I-55 near the bottom of the map.
Funks Grove via Interstate 55 is about two hours’ drive southwest from where I live on the outskirts of Chicago, and we went the fast way to get there, then took the slower way back until we got through Lexington again. The one big thing we wanted to see in Funks Grove after the Sugar Grove Nature Center (which is where the picnic was; we’ll write about that next time) and the cemetery, church and chapel in the woods was – you guessed it – the maple sirup farm. It’s not exactly where Google Maps shows it to be (well, not at the moment, anyway; we’ll see if they accept my correction) but actually farther down the road on an unnamed dirt road shaped like a 120-degree angle that connects Route 66 with N 800 East Road. The farm buildings and sugarhouse are actually in the crook of that bend in the dirt road; you can see it clearly in the satellite view. That puts the maple sirup farm about half a mile southwest of the intersection of Route 66 and Funks Road.
Now, the word sirup is a slightly more archaic one than syrup, but it’s also more specific. From the 19th century through at least the 1920s, Webster’s dictionary defined maple sirup as a pure product made solely by boiling down the sap of sugar maple trees, with no other sweeteners or flavorings added, whereas syrup was defined as fruit juice or water that had been cooked with sugar. The Funk family and its descendants have been pretty insistent over the years in sticking to sirup, if only because one of the people who operated the maple sugaring operation, Hazel Funk Holmes (daughter of Isaac II’s brother Absalom Funk), put the requirement to use the term right into her will and the trust that preserved the maple forest. Hazel owned the property on which the sirup operation is now located and made sure that this part of the historic grove would be saved for the family and the future (and for making sirup!) in perpetuity.
The sugaring operation went from being something the family founders in McLean County did for their own use, to a cash crop sorely needed during the Civil War when using Southern cane sugar was not only unfeasible but also offensive and unpatriotic, to a commercial maple sirup camp in 1891, to a major family business by World War II. When construction of I-55 threatened to cut off the business from drive-by buyers, a billboard alongside the new highway soon redirected tourists With Route 66’s resurgence, Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup is more popular than ever. They even have a website (alas, no online ordering) – but as they can’t grow more trees in a hurry, they only make so many gallons during each spring, and their maple sirup is only available between March and August, generally speaking. There was still sirup for sale last weekend, but who knows how long it’ll last; probably not ’til Labor Day. If you’re in the area, buy some while you can.
The maple sirup operation at Funks Grove is more modern, of course, than it was even during the postwar era in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Route 66’s popularity. The current sugarhouse or ‘sugar shack’ was built in 1988 and is the first to have a salesroom in front (which is what the rest of us call the shop, not realizing that there’s a big room behind it where the evaporator actually makes the sirup). Aunt Hazel had already taken the original cookhouse, a little cabin that her cousins Arthur and Lawrence had used before she took over operations from Lawrence, and moved it over to her property, turning it into a guest house and her summer home while building the second sugarhouse. Today, Hazel’s grand-nephew Mike Funk and his nephew Sean Funk use sap from about 7,000 taps to produce an average of 1,800 gallons of sirup each season.
After buying some goodies at the maple sirup store, we headed back north on Historic Route 66 toward Shirley, which is a tiny unincorporated village. It does boast the former residence of a descendant of Isaac Funk‘s, the mansion known as Prairie Home, which belonged to Marquis de LaFayette Funk – aka just plain old LaFayette Funk, Isaac’s fifth child and fifth son. LaFayette was also a state legislator in both houses (like his daddy), one of the founders of Chicago’s Union Stock Yards (which means he knew folks like Chicago pork baron and plutocrat Philip D. Armour), was chairman of the Illinois exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and was a trustee of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 1891-1893 (again, like Papa Isaac, though Isaac did his son one better in that he was not only a board member of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington but also was one of the founders). And oh, by the way, LaFayette was also supervisor of Funk’s Grove Township for 12 years, and his wife’s name was Shirley (yes, the tiny settlement was named for her).
The house, however, is not on Route 66. In fact, even though it’s directly south of town by just over a mile as the crow flies, because of the circuitous way you have to get there, it’s actually more like 2.4 miles from Route 66 and Quinn Street, which leads you into the hamlet’s ‘town center.’ So we didn’t go there, which means we skipped seeing not only the mansion but also its historic barn and the gem and mineral museum on the premises (LaFayette’s son and namesake, LaFayette II, apparently really liked the sparkly, shiny, expensive stones as much as the others). That’ll have to wait for next time. Instead, we got back on I-55 to sweep around Bloomington-Normal and skip the Sunday drivers there and headed for Towanda to the northeast.
Back in 1954, Route 66 in central Illinois was expanded to a four-lane divided highway through its rural stretches. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s, Interstate 55 was completed south of Joliet as mostly a separate highway paralleling U.S. Route 66 and going around the villages, towns and cities in its path. By 1998, only two of Route 66’s four lanes were still in use, and the other two were disused (whether the northbound or southbound lanes were used as opposed to abandoned varied just a bit, but whichever ones were used were then rendered two-lane roads that went in both directions). Fred Walk, then a history teacher at Towanda’s high school and now an instructional professor at Illinois State University in Normal, got the idea to teach his students about social activism by involving them in a local project that would recover and repurpose some of that abandoned Route 66 roadbed. The students would do all the reasearch, and community members would help with the project work and the fundraising. Thus was born the Towanda Historic Route 66 Parkway project.
Let me stop here and clarify a few things. First, if you look at a Google maps image of Towanda, you’ll see a stretch of Route 66 that runs through the village on a diagonal line while I-55 curves significantly above and around the town on the west side. The length of Route 66 between the two ends of the I-55 crescent around Towanda is about 3.2 miles in length, with the village of Towanda at the southern end. Right next to that Towanda section of Route 66, the disused roadbed of the former southbound lanes of Route 66 run parallel to the two lanes in use. Those disused lanes are marked on the map as the Historic Route 66 Trail and are used by travelers as a bike path and pedestrian walking trail. However, the project group only used the southernmost 1.8 miles of that stretch of the trail, ending at a pond at the southern end of town, for the renovated parkway. Further, the students created some exhibits about Route 66, called “Historic Route 66: A Geographical Journey” that only covers about 0.8 miles of the parkway, from the ‘center’ of town at the intersection of Route 66 and Jefferson Street southwest to just past the unnamed pond at the southern end of town. So, to recap: the exhibit is a 0.8-mile subset of the 1.8-mile parkway, which is itself a subset of the entire 3.2-mile Towanda trail. Which means that there’s about a mile and a half of the abandoned roadbed at the northernmost end of the trail that hasn’t been improved yet in any way. Got it? Okay.
The parkway project is ongoing, as is the fundraising to make further improvements possible, so the entire Towanda trail remains a work in progress. The initial phase back in 1998 involved a lot of planning and research; it took about a year before the parkway began to show results, but you could say that by 2000, the first phase was in place. Additional work was done later. A parking lot was made out by the pond in what is now Boyd-Wesley Park, turning that into a rest stop of sorts, and a garden with seating now marks the end of the parkway; there is also long, sheltered picnic pavilion inside the park just past the parking lot, along with a porta-potty for travelers. An entrance for the exhibit was created on the SW corner of Jefferson Street and Route 66 near the gas station, featuring signage, three flagpoles, a garden, a wooden bridge and a small open picnic area. Across the street on the NW corner, a small sheltered picnic area, signage and landscaping were installed. Between the exhibit entrance and its end near the pond, signs have been erected with exhibits on all eight states through which Route 66 runs, along with classic red Burma-Shave signs and bird houses. Each exhibit has a wooden holder for the interpretive brochures written by the students about each state; the brochures are printed in English, Spanish, French and German (attention, project members: when we visited last weekend, the only flyers left in those boxes were the German ones – you need refills! Someone should be checking those brochure boxes once a week. Just saying).
North of town, the parkway extends to about 750 feet north of the Money Creek Bridge before stopping at its northern end; beyond that is the remaining mile and a half of unimproved abandoned roadbed. Saving the old Money Creek Bridge on the abandoned southbound lanes was an important part of the parkway project, and Walk and his former students are pleased they were able to preserve it. At the south end of the bridge is another small garden with seating, similar to the one at the southern end of the parkway. In between the two ends, landscaping has been added over the years, including many young trees. No doubt more will likely be planted in the future. So far, the project has raised more than $25,000 since 1998 for the various improvements, through grants, fundraisers, and donations from individuals and organizations. About $3,000 of that was raised directly by the students through bake sales. Both students and community members have also put thousands of hours of sweat equity into the project, making more improvements and maintaining the parkway’s various features.
And it does need maintaining. After 15 years, there are aspects of the parkway that look worn. The roadbed of the parkway is still fractured in places, and inevitably those cracks sport weeds that need pulling. The roadbed of the Money Creek Bridge is pitted and discolored and needs slight cosmetic resurfacing. Some of the exhibit signage shows evidence of sun fading, requiring replacements with better UV resistance so that people can still read the text (we had difficulty with that on the shield-shaped start and end markers). The landscaping still looks sparse along most of the parkway and needs filling in, and a few more sheltered picnic tables and covered trash containers are needed along the section north of Jefferson Street. Then there’s the mile and a half of still unimproved roadbed at the northernmost end of the trail still to go.
One old section of Route 66’s original 1926 two-lane roadbed has been modernized in Towanda and is still in use, though not as the main part of the original route (it’s a side street now, even though it’s marked as part of 66). That’s the part north of the gas station that starts as the western section of Jackson Street, then curves down into Quincy Street before meeting the current path of Route 66. That is Towanda’s infamous Dead Man’s Curve. To clarify, Route 66 had plenty of ‘Dead Man’s’ curves throughout all eight states. All contributed to the road’s dark reputation as ‘Bloody 66,’ because of all the deadly accidents before the roadbed was straightened and road construction improved to reduce the number of such accidents. This curve comes complete with its own wrecked autos for effect.
After Dead Man’s Curve, we made a beeline north on the Route 66 scenic byway to Lexington. As the afternoon was getting late by now and we needed to get back to Chicago, we didn’t make the usual tour of Lexington and stop at The Shake Shack on Main Street – but we did check out Memory Lane, never having been there before. That’s Lexington’s stretch of preserved abandoned 1926 Route 66 roadway, complete with original signage. Depending on which source you use, it’s either nearly a mile long, or merely 0.6 mile long. On a map it’s not that easy to find, however: it’s labeled as Parade Road, no doubt renamed after the 1930 alignment had created a new roadbed nearby.
The picnic area at the northern end is well kept and attractive – manicured, even – but if the Towanda trail needed a touch more maintenance, Memory Lane needed a lot more. The signage is easier to see in winter, when the woods and shrubs are stripped of leaves and the tall weeds all lie flattened and dead. Last weekend, however, it was difficult to see much of anything down the entire length of Memory Lane past the picnic area. It wasn’t just the trees shading and darkening the interpretive trail: there were tall grasses and weeds, waist high in places, shrouding the bottoms of the signposts and, in some cases, partially blocking the view. Hint to whoever manages this place: take a mower to at least a 10-foot shoulder on either side so that people can actually see the signs, and trim around the signposts with a weed-whacker; otherwise, what’s the point of directing people there if they can’t see through the brush? I doubt very much that the original 1926 path of Route 66 along this strip was so overgrown: it would have caused far more accidents than it did.
As we drove down Memory Lane from northeast to southwest, we continued onward as Parade Road flowed right into W. Wall Street, then curved down N. Grove Street to Main Street. In a hurry to get home, we got back on I-55 northbound and reflected on the generally lovely road trip we’d had despite the brooding weather. And when we got back to Walker Park in Burr Ridge so that I could pick up my car, we saw that more progress had been made on a mural there. Oh, but wait … that’s another story. Never mind.
BTW, all photos on this page and in this blog (unless otherwise indicated) are copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved, which means if you want to use them, even for a tweet, you have to get written permission from yours truly to do so. No borrowing! Intellectual property protection; be kind and understand. Thanks in advance. ;D
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Until next time,
your Route 66 guides: Marie, Joe and Keith