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Illinois State Museum Prepares Exhibit For Centennial Of Historic Route 66, And Wants Your Contributions

CHICAGO (CBS) -- This story is both a trip back in time and a look ahead.

Historic Route 66, which of course had one of its terminal points in Chicago, turns 100 in a few years. And an Illinois museum needs your help to celebrate the milestone.

The Illinois State Museum is in Springfield - a town which Route 66 passed right through. Because of COVID-19, CBS 2's Marissa Parra took a virtual tour – and traveled through time virtually too.

The first pieces of an exhibit in the making about Route 66 have survived decades. Holst showed Parra a detailed map of Route 66 by artist Bob Waldmire, and a solar oven the artist used.

Holst is on a treasure hunt – looking for anything that tells the story – our story – of Route 66 in the Prairie State.

The iconic road, born officially as U.S. Highway 66, crossed 2,000 miles – connecting the West Coast to the Midwest by road for the first time.

Historic signs in Chicago mark where the Mother Road first began in 1926. You'll find the ending point at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue and the starting point a block north at Adams Street and Michigan Avenue. Jackson Boulevard was the original route, but it was split across two east-west streets when Jackson was made one way eastbound.

Route 66 goes on to follow Ogden Avenue through the city's West Side and near west suburbs, and heads southwest through downstate Illinois before crossing into Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The route finally terminates in Santa Monica, California.

During the highway's glory days, Route 66 was a muse. "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" has been part of the American songbook since Nat King Cole first released it in 1946.

NAT KING COLE ROUTE 66 by anneesvinyl on YouTube

"(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" has been covered my numerous artists in its nearly 76 years. Here's a 1961 version by Chuck Berry, a native of the Route 66 city of St. Louis:

Route 66 (Swing Version) by Chuck Berry - Topic on YouTube

Route 66 is also a powerful symbol in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel "The Grapes of Wrath," representing a pathway to hope from the Dust Bowl:

"66 is the path of people in flight, refugees from the dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up and out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

And there's art, like the creations of the aforementioned Bob Waldmire (1945-2009), who made a name for himself with his maps and sketches of Route 66 landmarks – often with historical text included.

"Bob Waldmire was an artist, and he would travel from town to town and make artwork," Holst said.

As the museum noted, Waldmire traveled from town to town along the old Route 66 in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s as he created and sold postcards. In 1985 – the same year Route 66 was officially decommissioned – Waldmire bought a 1972 Volkswagen camper van that he lived out of in Arizona.

Waldmire's van became the inspiration for the character Fillmore in the Disney-Pixar movie "Cars."

Waldmire's family donated a large collection of his artworks and personal belongings. In addition to maps and solar ovens, the collection includes other drawings, paintings, prints, and postcards – and the manual typewriter Waldmire used to write his newsletters. The museum even got a pair of his patched cutoff shorts that he wore on the road, a roadside display stand for his postcards, and the hood of his 1965 Mustang – on which he painted a map of Route 66.

And while the iconic highway was decommissioned decades ago, it never went out of style – and the Illinois State Museum wants to hear from you about items they might add to the collection.

"We're casting a wide net," Holst said. "We'd love to see what comes from it."

If you're ready to see relicts from the roadway past, you'll have to pump the brakes and wait four more years for 2026 – when the Mother Road turns 100.

"Since were putting this call out, we want to give it time to grow," Holst said. "We want to see where this leads us."

The Illinois State Museum, again, is looking for donations from people in Illinois. So whether you, an Illinoisan, took a road trip along Route 6 all the way down, or you stuck to your own state, the museum wants to hear from you. Email Holst here, with your photo and a description.

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