Some 90 miles southeast of Lake Michigan, the former coal-mining town of Pontiac (pop. 11,827) surrounds the stately 1875 Livingston County Courthouse. The courthouse’s green lawns hold the usual battery of monuments, including one to the namesake Ottawa chief whose visage also graced the General Motors “Pontiac” models, which were discontinued and abandoned in 2010. According to the WPA Guide to Illinois, another of these monuments, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, received the shortest presidential dedication in history when, in 1902, it was “dedicated with a few hasty words by President Theodore Roosevelt, before an audience of less than a dozen people, who congregated briefly under a terrific downpour.”
Though the old road ran around rather than right through Pontiac, the town has become one of the main stops on the Illinois Route 66 tour, thanks to the presence here of the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame Museum (110 W. Howard St., 815/844-4566, daily, free), in the old main fire station. Along with the usual displays of gas pumps, enamel and neon advertising signs, and old photos documenting the road’s heritage, the Pontiac museum is worth a look for its tribute to iconic Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire (1945-2009), whose delicate line drawings were instrumental in nurturing national enthusiasm for preserving and protecting the unique legacy of Route 66. Many of Bob’s drawing and mural paintings and large murals are reproduced here, alongside the 1972 VW camper and the big old Chevy schoolbus RV in which Bob traveled and lived for much of his prolific life. Bob’s VW van and his hippy-dippy appreciation of the human and natural history of Route 66 inspired the countercultural character “Fillmore” in the movie Cars, voiced by comedian George Carlin. Adding to the aesthetic experience, the engaging International Wall Dogs Sign and Mural Museum (217 N. Mill St., 815/842-1848, daily, free) is in the same building. The Wall Dogs are an international collective who get together in places around the world to paint large signs and public murals, including most of those lining the streets of downtown.
Pontiac is also home to two more excellent attractions. Facing the west side of the landmark Livingston County Courthouse, the world’s greatest car museum, officially known as the Pontiac-Oakland Museum (205 N. Mill St., 815/842-2345, daily, free), displays immaculately preserved Firebirds and Bonnevilles amid a Smithsonian-worthy array of advertising and related memorabilia, all in a beautifully designed and maintained space reclaimed from a historic showroom.
One more long-lived Route 66 landmark to experience: the Old Log Cabin Inn (18700 Old Route 66, 815/842-2908) on the north edge of town. When Route 66 was redirected behind the original location, this restaurant was jacked up and flipped around. The older old road, which dates from 1918, is still there, behind the café along the railroad tracks. The old log building doesn’t catch the eye like some other more exuberant Route 66 icons, but the good food and warm hospitality on offer inside are the essence of the old road—especially if you visit before they’ve run out of coconut cream pie!