While many small towns across the country struggle to keep their downtowns afloat, a string of Illinois communities scattered along the famous Route 66 are enjoying newfound popularity as foreign tourists roll in by rental car, motorcycle and bus.
Author John Weiss, right, gave suggestions on places to visit to Sonny Dudas, left, and Emilia Mattsson, tourists from London who were traveling along Route 66 for two weeks. They are visiting the Route 66 Hall of Fame in Pontiac, Ill., in October.
The honeymooners from Spain spoke limited English, but that didn't stop Mayor Bob Russell of Pontiac, Ill., from giving them a hearty welcome.
"How long have you been here?" Russell asked, posing for a snapshot with the newlyweds by a giant Route 66 mural before moving on to greet a busload of French tourists.
While many small towns across the country struggle to keep their downtowns afloat, a string of other Illinois communities scattered along the famed Route 66 are enjoying newfound popularity as foreign tourists roll in by rental car, motorcycle and bus.
"In Europe, it's very much the epic American road trip," said Sonny Dudes, a 31-year-old Brit who pulled a rental car up to a visitor center housed in a restored Texaco gas station in Dwight, Ill., on a recent afternoon. "It's the novelty of a bygone era."
Anyone familiar with the Bobby Troup song knows that people get their kicks on Route 66, which ran 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. The roadway celebrated its 85th anniversary of being named on Nov. 11.
The storied highway began as 300 miles of uninterrupted paved road in Illinois in 1926. By the early 1930s, the entire distance was paved, prompting business owners along its path to create kitschy gimmicks -- giant statues, Indian Trading Posts and neon signs -- to entice drivers to stop and spend money, said John Weiss, a local who has sold more than 10,000 copies of his book, "Traveling the New, Historic Route 66 of Illinois."
The construction of Interstate 55 in Illinois replaced the need for Route 66, and in 1977, the roadway was taken off official state maps. Still, visitors come from Armenia and Ukraine with cameras around their necks, road maps in hand and money in their pockets to head out on "The Mother Road."
Clustered along 90 miles of the highway, towns from Joliet to Towanda, Ill., banded together in 2006 to make improvements and promote their Route 66 attractions collectively as "The Red Carpet Corridor."
Pontiac, Ill., home to the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, added what locals claim to be the world's largest Route 66 mural for photo opportunities and opened three new downtown museums. Tourism officials painted colored footprints on sidewalks to lead non-English-speaking visitors from one attraction to another, said Ellie Alexander, Pontiac's tourism director.
When a tour group books an overnight stay, Pontiac -- population 12,000 -- offers a personal greeting from the mayor, a free tour on the "Jolly Trolley" and a complimentary performance of a Route 66 musical by a local troupe.
Recognizing the untapped market, Joliet tourism officials in 2006 spent $150,000 in state grant money and city funds to create attractions for travelers. Leaders posted Route 66 signs around the community, printed maps and renovated a parking lot near the Joliet Correctional Center -- made famous in the "Blues Brothers" movie -- where tourists often stopped to take pictures.
"They'd been coming through here and we just didn't have a system for guiding and directing it," said Rebecca Barker of Visit Joliet.
Officials added furniture from the 1950s and '60s and Blues Brothers statues to the visitors center at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. A neon sign went up on the Rich & Creamy ice cream parlor along the route's path.
Weiss and his late wife, Lenore, were among locals to encourage leaders in communities on the Route 66 path to showcase historic places such as the two-cell jail in Gardner or the iconic Standard Oil Filling Station in Odell. Weiss finds the international interest in Route 66 "so rewarding."
"They'll take pictures of our cornfields and our soybeans. They spend thousands of dollars just to come here -- it's their dream," he said.
At the Polka Dot Drive-In in Braidwood, Ill., signatures from international travelers fill up multiple guestbooks kept under the cash register.
Philippe Eli, 52, was one of those visitors, traveling with 13 other French tourists on Route 66 from California to Chicago by bus.
While perusing souvenirs at the gift shop in Pontiac, he was asked what inspired him to choose a Route 66 trip.
His answers came as short, choppy examples at first.
"Grapes of Wrath."
And then Eli summed it up in one sentence, spoken in perfect English.
"We love America more than you think," he said.
The website www.il66red carpetcorridor.org provides information about the Red Carpet Corridor in Illinois.