Monarchs and the Mother Road

New "Route 66 Experience" under development at Illinois State Fairgrounds

click to enlarge Monarchs and the Mother Road
Concept Art Provided by Ace Sign Co., on behalf of the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway.
A rendering of the proposed Route 66 development at the fairgrounds.

Springfield is proud of its connection to Route 66, which attracts tourists from all over the globe. The Illinois State Fairgrounds is the only state fairgrounds located along the 2,448-mile Route 66 highway. Springfield intends to take maximum advantage of this claim to fame, well in advance of the upcoming centennial of the Mother Road in 2026. The Illinois State Fairgrounds "Route 66 Experience" is already under development inside the fairgrounds at the southeast corner, just west of Peoria Road and north of Gate 2 on Sangamon Avenue.

Ace Sign Co. installed a towering Route 66 "beacon" sign just prior to this year's Illinois State Fair. Beneath the sign, bees and butterflies are attracted to a plethora of native plants. Apparently, monarch butterflies also like to get their kicks on Route 66. Long before there was a highway, monarchs have followed the path of the historic route as part of their migration from the eastern and northern U.S. to Texas and on to breeding areas in Mexico. The Route 66 Monarch Flyway is a 66-mile-wide corridor from Chicago to St. Louis, established by the Illinois Monarch Project to promote planting of native wildflowers and pollinator gardens, tapping into the widespread interest in Route 66.

The nonprofit Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway entered into a long-term agreement with the Illinois State Fair to dedicate this portion of the fairgrounds for the "Route 66 Experience." Plans for the site were presented at a Sept. 20 program of the Sangamon County Historical Society, held at the site of the new exhibit at the fairgrounds. Susan Helm, president of the society, brought 27 monarch butterflies which children helped release at the evening event. Helm has coordinated planting milkweed and pollinator habitat all over Springfield and is a well-known local advocate, master gardener and community volunteer.

click to enlarge Monarchs and the Mother Road
Left: Children release monarchs at the fairgrounds. Right: The new Route 66 beacon sign marks the site of the new attraction.

The "Route 66 Experience" is a one-acre area being designed as a walk through a miniature version of Route 66. Four more iconic neon signs that were lost to history will be recreated and installed by Ace Sign Co., featuring the A. Lincoln Motel, Chain of Rocks Motel, Bel Air Drive In and the Coliseum Ballroom. There will be a representation of a drive-in theater and wireframe models of vintage vehicles. Billboards with vintage advertising will be featured. "Muffler Man" and other giants have become iconic features along Route 66. Ace Sign Co. is creating Springfield's own unique 25-foot-tall illuminated giant, holding a neon 4x8-foot waving American flag.

Sidewalks through the area will be reminiscent of highways lined with classic Burma Shave advertising signs. The end of the exhibit will be a walk over a miniature Chain of Rocks Bridge, the site where Route 66 ends in Illinois. Existing small barns, recently painted burgundy, will feature entertainment, politics and culture by decade, beginning in the 1920s and extending to current day. The "Route 66 Experience" is being developed in phases and targeted for completion in June 2023. The total cost of the project is estimated at $1,875,000. The Illinois Route 66 Byway received a $500,000 tourism attraction grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for the "Route 66 Experience" exhibits. The city of Springfield, private donors and businesses, communities and convention and visitors bureaus along Illinois Route 66 are providing additional funding.

The "Route 66 Experience" will be open year-round, accessible by entering the main gate. This contributes to the priority identified in the Community Foundation's Next 10 initiatives to make the Illinois State Fairgrounds a year-round attraction.

This area of the fairgrounds was previously the Department of Agriculture's "Farmer's Little Helpers" area. Four years ago, there were four raised beds planted with corn and soybeans. Now these beds are planted with more than 50 species of native plants, including several species of milkweed, which are essential for monarchs. Grants from the Illinois Native Plant Society and the Springfield Civic Garden Club helped to make this possible. Jerry Morgan is responsible for landscape design and maintenance on the fairgrounds. He arranges crews of inmates from Illinois correctional facilities to carry out the landscaping and ongoing maintenance. They were responsible for planting the pollinator gardens and watering and weeding.

The fairgrounds "Route 66 Experience" will be a perfect stop along the Mother Road for the many Route 66 aficionados who journey through Springfield – as well as for Illinois' state insect, the monarch butterfly.

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