Hometown of politician Adlai Stevenson (and Colonel Henry Blake of TV’s M*A*S*H), Bloomington-Normal sits at the middle of Illinois, surrounded by five different freeways and miles of cornfields. Its main claim to fame is in being the only place in the world where that classic bar snack, Beer Nuts, is made; for a free sample (but no tour, alas), stop by the Beer Nuts factory (103 N. Robinson St., 800/BEER-NUTS—800/233-7688 or 309/827-8580, Mon.-Fri.).
The “Twin Cities” are also the corporate home of insurance company State Farm and birthplace of another all-American icon, the Midwest-based burger chain Steak ’n Shake, which started here in 1934. Good food is available downtown at Lucca Grill (116 E. Market St., 309/828-7521), which has been serving pizza and pasta dishes since the 1930s.
Heading on from Bloomington-Normal, westbound drivers will encounter the next two towns in sonorous order—Shirley and McLean. Wordplay aside, the stretch of Illinois farmland between Bloomington and Springfield is rich in Route 66-related heritage.
In McLean, 55 miles from Springfield and 16 miles southwest from Bloomington, old Route 66 emerges from the shadow of I-55. You can follow old Route 66 along the west side of the freeway for just over four miles past the delightful anachronism of Funks Grove (309/874-3360), where the friendly Funk family has been tapping trees and selling delicious maple “sirup” (that’s how they spell it) since 1891.
If you’re here in late winter or early spring, you can watch them tap the trees and hammer in the spouts; each tree can produce up to 4 gallons of sap a day, but it takes 35 to 50 gallons of sap for each gallon of the final product. Free tastings are available, and a full range of bottles is on sale.
The only town named for Honest Abe in his lifetime, Lincoln (pop. 13,969) took his name before he became a famous figure.
As a young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln drew up the legal documents for founding the town but warned developers that he “never knew of anything named Lincoln that amounted to much.” At the dedication ceremonies, Lincoln supposedly “baptized” the place by spitting out a mouthful of watermelon seeds—hence the plaster watermelon and historical plaque commemorating the great event, next to the Amtrak-serviced train station at Broadway and Chicago Streets in the center of town.
Lincoln was also home to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), who was elected Class Poet while in the eighth grade here.