A Publication of WTVP

Get Your Kicks in Pontiac

by Scott Fishel | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Drew Stanford, left, and Susie Mason get their kicks by taking selfies in front of the mural on the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Pontiac
Drew Stanford, left, and Susie Mason get their kicks by taking selfies in front of the mural on the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Pontiac

Old Route 66 is still the Mother Road in this historic, colorful city

If summer is the season for road trips, Pontiac may well qualify as the premier road trip destination in central Illinois, if not beyond.

And that’s not just the local tourism director talking. The city was named the official destination for National Road Trip Day 2023 — May 26 — by National Day Calendar.

It would seem the rest of the country is catching on to what Pontiac folks have known for decades.

With its marketable mix of Americana, car culture, history, a scenic river and proximity to larger metropolitan areas, this city of roughly 11,300 has plenty to offer day trippers, weekend escapees and anyone else with a sense of nostalgic adventure.

“I’ve often said that if Norman Rockwell wanted to paint a small midwestern town, he would have a field day here,” said Pontiac Mayor Bill Alvey. He points to the picturesque 1875 courthouse, historic homes and three pedestrian suspension bridges — known locally as swinging bridges — across the Vermillion River as examples.

And, of course, there’s Route 66. Everywhere you look, old U. S. Route 66 — the Mother Road — is woven into the city’s public persona. Whether you live and work here or you’re just passing through, it’s hard to separate the city from that legendary stretch of highway.

“Pontiac is a small town, but there is a lot to do,” said Liz Vincent, the city’s director of community enrichment. “It’s walkable, easy to explore … People with many different interests can find something to do here and have a good time.”

Pontiac Cruise Night on the square downtown
Pontiac Cruise Night
on the square downtown
One of 23 murals in downtown Pontiac
One of 23 murals in
downtown Pontiac

Getting Your Kicks

A preserved section of old U.S. Route 66 skirts the western edge of Pontiac on its iconic, 2,448-mile route from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. Originally mapped and opened in 1926, Route 66 left an indelible mark on the consciousness of America. Thanks to TV, movies, books and song, travelers from around the world now long to drive down that same memory lane.

The history of people and places along the 301-mile path through Illinois are lovingly preserved at the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, housed in Pontiac’s former City Hall and Fire Station on Howard Street. This centerpiece of the Pontiac Museum Complex showcases memorabilia, photos and stories from a bygone era of automobile travel. It’s all here, the intriguing and the kitschy, from the 1972 VW microbus of Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire (it was the inspiration for Fillmore in Pixar’s animated movie Cars) to the sheet music for (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.

The Livingston County War Museum houses hundreds of uniformed mannequins, flags, and war memorabilia at 321 N. Main Street
The Livingston County War Museum houses hundreds of uniformed mannequins, flags, and war memorabilia at 321 N. Main Street
The Pontiac-Oakland Museum in downtown Pontiac has everything related to those two car models
The Pontiac-Oakland Museum in downtown Pontiac has everything related to those two car models
Pontiac Mayor Bill Alvey speaks to the crowd at Wally's superstore off Interstate 55 on National Road Trip Day, May 26
Pontiac Mayor Bill Alvey speaks to the crowd at Wally’s superstore off Interstate 55 on National Road Trip Day, May 26

Thomas McElwee, an English teacher at Pontiac Township High School, said he believes people are attracted to Route 66 because, unlike high-speed travel on modern interstate highways, “it lets people move at their own pace. It gives you a chance to take a breath and look around.”

Traveling Route 66, even just in Illinois, makes foreign visitors realize “what a gigantic, sprawling place America is,” McElwee added.

The Pontiac Museum Complex is also home to the Livingston County War Museum, which preserves military artifacts and the uniforms of hundreds of local servicemen and women from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan. Each uniform tells the story of the soldier who wore it. A volunteer staff of veterans and history enthusiasts conducts tours, answers questions and shares personal experiences.

Elsewhere in the building are exhibits on life in the 1940s and on the Titanic, music of the Civil War and newspaper accounts of the assassination and funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln. The Bob Waldmire Experience is a tribute to the free-spirited artist and his work. He traveled Route 66 in a 1966 school bus converted into the “land yacht” that is parked outside the museum.

‘We Build Excitement’

It seems only fitting that a museum tribute to the Pontiac automobile should be  in the heart of this city. The Pontiac-Oakland Museum and Resource Center on North Mill Street houses an impressive collection of vintage automobiles built by Pontiac and its predecessor, Oakland. Along with the classics and the chrome is a floor-to-ceiling library of service manuals and a colorful array of more than 2,000 oil cans.

Opened in 2011, the museum is one of the reasons about 250 Pontiac GTOs and their drivers converge on the city each year for the largest “goat” rally in the Midwest.

“I’m not even a car person and I find the museum fascinating,” said Vincent.

Just down the street is another unique local experience. The Museum of Guilding Arts relates the history and craft of gold and silver leaf in architecture and decoration.

‘Downtown is Alive’

The clock tower on the Livingston County Courthouse, 70 feet high, watches over a thriving city center. There’s not a chain store or national franchise in sight. Homegrown restaurants and other mom-and-pop shops are joined by the Pontiac Doll Museum and the Community Art Center.

The red-striped awning above the entrance to Pfaff’s Bakery is a landmark. The local purveyor of baked goods has satisfied sweet tooths for more than 75 years. Route 66 Kites and Board Games is on the square, filled with a dizzying array of colorful and exotic flyers. The shop sponsors the Route 66 Kit Festival in September.

One of three swing bridges over the Vermillion River in Pontiac
One of three swing bridges over the Vermillion River in Pontiac

Adjacent to the square is Block 52, a green space and parking area that serves as a year-round site for activities including festivals, car shows and a winter ice skating rink.

McElwee has only lived in Pontiac for five years, but he has been impressed with what he has seen in the downtown business district.

“It’s well supported by the community,” he said. “When downtown is alive, the rest of the town can breathe, too.”

‘The Great American Road Trip’

Another area of commercial activity is Wally’s, which entices travelers off of Interstate 55 at Route 116 on the west side of town. Not your typical truck stop, the 30,000-square-foot shopping and dining experience — “Home of the Great American Road Trip” — targets vacationing families and leisure travelers with squeaky clean bathrooms, 76 fuel pumps, electric charging stations and a beef jerky bar. Of all the communities along I-55, Wally’s chose Pontiac for one of its two locations.

“They actually came to us and said, ‘We want to do this here,’” said Vincent. “They said, ‘There is energy here.’”

The local economy has been bolstered by the reported $20 million invested in the project, which opened in 2020, and the tax revenue it produces.

Farming and Industrial Heritage

Pontiac thrived long before Route 66. Like most communities on the Illinois prairie, it was built on farming. But it struggled to survive until the Chicago & Alton Railroad arrived in the 1850s. In the following decade, Livingston County grew from 1,500 to 11,500 people.

Mills made use of local raw materials. Coal mining brought in more settlers. A young Abe Lincoln visited Pontiac frequently; a lifelike sculpture of the lanky lawyer is custom-made for selfies on the Washington Street side of the courthouse.

After the Civil War, cigars, candy (the Lotta Bar), farm implements, grain elevators and washing machines were all made here. Early in the 20th century, shoe manufacturing took off. Once upon a time, seven shoe factories operated in Pontiac.

Today, Caterpillar is the dominant employer, followed by OSF St. James/W. Albrecht Medical Center, LSC Communications (a survivor of the once booming printing industry) and Interlake Mecalux, Inc., maker of warehouse shelving systems.

On the south end of town is the Pontiac Correctional Center, a state-run prison employing about 550. The facility began as the Illinois State Boys Reformatory School in 1871. Today’s sprawling, 37-acre complex holds just over 700 medium- and maximum-security inmates.

“The prison has great value to the city,” said Alvey, the mayor. When Springfield politicians talk about shuttering the facility, as they frequently do, “we are always concerned for the well-being of the staff and what they provide the city.

“We are fortunate to have a running state facility and it seems like it’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”

At the Movies

Arts and recreation play a big role in this active and outgoing community. Among the 10 parks are three pedestrian suspension bridges connecting riverside green spaces and residential areas. From June to September, musicians of all sorts perform at Humiston-Riverside Park in the Rockin’ at the River concert series. The Vermillion Players stage theatrical productions at the Chautauqua Park Pavilion. Concerts, dinner theater, receptions and special events are on the bill at the Eagle Performing Arts Center.

Some 23 outdoor murals grace downtown buildings, 18 of which were painted in just four days in 2009 by the Walldogs, an international group of sign painters and muralists.

Hollywood came to town in 1984 with the filming of Grandview USA, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Patrick Swayze topping the marquee.

The town also gained a degree of notoriety in 2015 when photos for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition were shot here. The theme that year centered on — you guessed it — Route 66. More recently, actress Jane Lynch came to Pontiac to film a tourism commercial for the state of Illinois.

In May, travel show host Samantha Brown stopped by to explore Pontiac’s many attractions. It only takes an hour or two to understand why this town might be included as one of Samantha Brown’s Places to Love.

As Rose Geralds, a docent at the Route 66 Museum and a lifetime Pontiac resident, concludes, “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Scott Fishel

Scott Fishel

is a senior communications executive with WTVP