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Downstate Atlanta finds way on Route 66 map

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:23AM



ATLANTA, Ill. — Generations of roadies have gotten a charge out of Route 66.

But tiny Atlanta, Ill., about 20 miles south of Bloomington-Normal, sees the signals for the future. Literally.

Atlanta (pop. 1,649) is the first community on Route 66 — from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., — to feature an EV (electronic vehicle) charging station. The station is is the culminaton of a three-year effort led by Bill Thomas of Atlanta, one of the top Route 66 preservationists in America. Thomas put Atlanta on the map by facilitating the relocation of the iconic “Bunyon Giant” roadside attraction from a Route 66 hot dog stand in south suburban Cicero to Atlanta; the renovation of The Palms Grill & Cafe (opened 1934); and the opening of new arts and crafts store where I recently bought a weird WeBeJamming sculpture.

“We need to build an infrastructure of charging stations along Route 66 because Route 66 caused the development of the gas station infrastructure we now take for granted,” Thomas said in a recent interview. “Route 66 should spur the development of the next energy infrastructure needed by highway travelers. When people began traveling Route 66 what did they need? A place to eat. A place to sleep. And gas for their engine. At one time there were nine gas stations from the south end to the north end of Atlanta. Now we have one gas station.”

The free 24-hour EV station is at 204 SE Vine St., in the city parking lot adjacent to old Route 66 (exit 140 on I-55).

“The Route 66 Scenic Byway Association sees this as a tourism angle that can be worked,” said Joe Mikulecky, a member of the governor’s Electric Vehicle Advisory Council, during a break to charge his 2012 Nissan (73 miles per charge) in Atlanta. “Gas prices are volatile. People are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. The [foreigners] touring Route 66 see this as a friendly thing. They’ve seen it their countries.”

ast week Thomas met tourists from France, Brazil and England in front of the statue. And that was just one week on America’s mother road. And now tourists will be stopping in Atlanta to recharge their cars.

There are three levels of EV chargers, and Atlanta has the most common — Level 2 — which hovers around 240 volts like an electric dryer. “To fully recharge would be two, two-and-a-half hours, which is more than enough time to take in sites and spend a couple bucks to support the local economy,” said Mikulecky, engineering manager for the Farnsworth Group in Bloomington. (Level 1 is a simple plug in like you find in your home while Level 3 is 460 volts DC fast charge.) “Not too many places outside of a metropolitan area can support that demand,” he said.

Mikulecky added there are about 200 charging stations in Chicago and 28 DC fast-charge stations in tollway oasises. (You can find them all at www.carstations.com.) He said, “The Electricification Coalition based out of Washington, D.C., said that per capita the Bloomington-Normal area is by percentage much farther ahead with charging station installation than anywhere else in the country.”

History is repeating itself. Thomas added, “Places like Cracker Barrel are installing charging stations just like the old hardware stores did in the 1920s on Route 66. The charging stations are following the same pattern.”

“The I-55, Route 66 corrridor is of interest because the state owns15 (electric) vehicles,” added Mikulecky. “The main interest now is how people with electric cars can get from Springfield to Chicago. Atlanta’s placement of an electric vehicle charging station is unique as it is a nice midpoint. It’s great for us who have electric vehicles to do an ‘opportunity charge,’ then dine at the Palms, spend some time at the museums in Atlanta and go shopping.”

And there is a lot to do in such a small town.

Last summer the Arch Street Artisans Shop opened at 101 S.W. Arch St. (217-648-5077), in the former Wisteria Cafe and ice cream parlor (circa 1920s). The shop features the work of 18 regional artisans including handcrafted jewelry, paintings, quilts and homemade candies. “The majority of artists live in town or out in the countryside,” saidBill Thomas, 58-year-old CEO of Teleologic Learning Company, which makes online training programs for the United States military. “They were selling out of their houses or online. They didn’t have a central location, especially one that could tack into the ‘66 traffic. It went so well the first year we opened up a second room.”

One of the great things about car road trips is having ample room for souvenirs.

This is why I bought a three-feet tall sheet steel “WeBeJamming” figure ($25) made by Don Bode, a 61-year-old welder from Lincoln, nine miles south of Atlanta on ‘66. I spent 45 minutes talking to Bode and I still can’t tell you exactly what a “WeBeJamming” figure is. It looks like a thin sunflower that has been welded into the comic Carrot Top.

It makes me smile.

“I do the WeBeJamming family,” Bode explained during a conversation at the shop. “The mother, the son, the kid, whoever it is. I do three in a set, but if you need an extra one I’ll make it. I try to go inside a picture and see what’s behind the scenes, what’s behind a flower. I’m kind of weird on that part. Now I’m on a computer system, they pop up on the screen, I go to the cutting machine and it cuts them. But I don’t believe in straight lines. I like to put a zag in it.”

Like Route 66.

Bode has lived in Lincoln all his 61 years. His mother was a telephone operator and his father left home when he was in second grade. He is the youngest of two brothers and a sister. Bode opened his welding shop in 1974.

“About 10 years ago I started dabbling around in metal art,” he said. “My regular clients are farmers, I do some work for factories.” Bode does not live far from the now-shuttered Tropics restaurant in Lincoln, a 1950s-era Route 66 landmark known for its neon sign and for the fact there are no tropics in Central Illinois.

“I do a lot of beach art,” he added. “I do palm trees, 5 o’clock somewhere. I personalize names in between a pair of palm trees.”

Local historians uncovered a secret history with the Wisteria Cafe.

Newspaper ads from the 1920s include the slogan “The Wisteria Cafe — Kome Keep Kool,” which telegraphed the fact the Wisteria was a member of Atlanta’s Ku Klux Klan. The Wisteria is across old Route 66 from the new “Route 66 Memories,” a hodge podge of vintage road signage, a Whizzer motorized bicycle, and an antique Rolls Royce, all on display in a former hardware store. The items were collected by retired Bloomington cement contractor Mike Evans.

“Memories” reminds me of my apartment, except for the Rolls Royce.

“If Mike isn’t here we have a key at the shop,” Thomas said with a smile. “We’ll open it up. That’s how we roll here in Atlanta. I did Route 66 in 1964 when I was in fourth grade. You saw these eccentric places along the side of the road to attract tourists and that is what he has done.”

The Bunyon statue went up in 2004 and the Palm Grill reopend in 2009, re-introducing tourists to Atlanta. From 2008-2011 sales tax revenue in Atlanta during the prime tourism months of April-August increased 43 per cent. Atlanta mayor Fred Finchum said, “Route 66 has given us an opportunity to bring people to town. And every time you bring people to town you have an opportunity to sell them something. The first thing we did was the Bunyon statue. You and I might sit and look at that and say ‘What is that?’ Do you know what it is? It is cars stopping and people getting out.”



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