We are in northern Illinois and have left the metropolis of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. We are moving southwards towards the capital city Springfield, the “land of Lincoln” where the famous president lived for 24 years before being elected in 1861 and where many places still have links to him (note that this is not the Springfield made famous by the Simpson family which, in the words of Matt Groening himself, was inspired by the city which is instead located in Oregon).
We had planned to visit this town because of our interest in the car museum that bears the same name, the Route 66 museum, and the murals. It certainly lived up to our expectations and we were also delighted to realize that there was more to come. So, if you are in the area, do as we did and treat yourself to a stop in Pontiac along the legendary Route 66.
Origin of Pontiac’s recent fame
Since the summer of 2011, the small town of Pontiac has seen its popularity grow significantly. To explain why, let’s have a flashback, and learn a short story about a great passion that turned into a “dream come true”. At the age of 16, after buying his first car, Mr. Tim Dye fell in love with the Pontiac car brand. His continuing passion grew to the point where he began collecting everything he could find about the company.
Then in August 2010 Mr. Dye took a trip to St. Charles, Oklahoma for the annual Pontiac Car Show. On the return trip, he made a pit stop that changed his life. He saw the sign for the town of Pontiac, Illinois, and naturally, he wanted to make a detour to the town with the name he liked so much. He was struck by that town and he instantly had a dazzling idea: to create a museum of Pontiac automobiles in the town that bore the same name.
No sooner said than done: his application was enthusiastically accepted by the mayor and the Pontiac-Oakland automobile museum (205 N. Mill St.) opened in the summer of 2011, with Mr. Dye as curator. Mr. Dye and his wife moved to the city, bringing with them twenty vehicles from their private collection, including several Pontiac-branded buggies as well as artifacts and memorabilia. The couple added to the fleet with dozens of other vehicles later donated by enthusiasts and supporters of the initiative.
In the museum, which is located in the center of the town, there are also vehicles from the Oakland Motor Car Company, which later became part of the same group. In addition to the “treasures” on wheels, there is a large library at the site where visitors can browse through manuals, examine color charts, read press releases and other publications. Approximately 20,000 visitors come to the museum each year, many of them from overseas.
In the exhibition rooms, you can sense the care, attention, love, and passion of those who worked to make this place reality and keep it inviting and different, rotating the cars on display, restoring new Pontiac and Oakland models, and changing the display in the rooms. A recently adopted initiative is to exhibit models of cars with similar lines so that comparisons can be made and even the smallest details can be examined. This way of exhibiting happened by chance, without planning, but the true enthusiasts liked it very much. Entrance to the museum is free but donations are accepted. Before going to the museum, it is a good idea to visit the official website.
Things to Do in Pontiac
Pontiac also drew our attention for its International Walldog Mural and Sign Art Museum (217 N. Mill St.) dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of early murals, a type of artwork whose technique is still practiced around the world even though it has been partially replaced by electronically created images. The painters who drew the early masterpieces were referred to as “walldogs.”
The exhibition tells the story of the painters who first unleashed their creativity on the sides of brick buildings, barns and other structures. Examples of those early works can still be seen throughout the mid-west and although faded, peeling and sometimes barely visible, these “ghost drawings” remain an important part of the culture. In addition, the museum’s founders wanted to create a link between the past and the present, which is why there are historical and modern exhibits that give a sense of continuity to the wall-painting technique.
The great thing is that the modern “walldogs” pay homage to those who came before them and work to preserve the techniques of those early artists, thus helping to make Pontiac an “open-air museum” that we can’t wait to fully discover as soon as we leave this building that also houses the Museum of the Gilding Arts (217 N. Mill St.). This is where the history, the artisanal use of gold/silver leaf in architecture and decoration are told through a journey that goes back to the time of the ancient pharaohs of Egypt. Both museums ask for a donation for admission.
And here we are indulging in a nice walk through downtown, aimed at familiarizing ourselves with Pontiac’s 23 murals that surprise us at every turn and depict events, people and places related to the city’s history, politics and culture. The camera has its work cut out, starting with the largest one honoring the Mother Road. We have not forgotten that Pontiac is crossed by the iconic Illinois Route 66 and in fact, our next destination is the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum (110 W. Howard St.), which houses hundreds of historical relics from the glory days of the Mother Road. This is a real treat even for those who are not experts or fans of this road.
Whatever your reason for visiting, here you can learn about Route 66 through pictures and stories of when it was the nation’s most important highway. In the adjoining Visitor Center (with gift shop) we ask for information about Pontiac, do some shopping and leave a small donation as a sort of entrance fee, then upstairs in the Livingston County War Museum the atmosphere changes. Here, walking around is like taking a tour of the 20th century with all the artifacts, films, books, uniforms and weapons from various wars: Iraq and Afghanistan, the Korean War, Operation Desert Storm, the Vietnam War, World War I and World War II.
For those interested, those rooms represent a “living history” and the staff is made up of veterans who answer questions from visitors and share their experiences and emotions. The museum does not glorify wars, far from it, but shows the value of the men and women involved in them, regardless of why they were created. In doing so, the service of all American veterans, past and present, is honored.
After watching a roughly six-minute video as a preview, it only took a few moments to understand what is represented here: the sacrifice, the patriotism, the veterans telling war stories and explaining that an awareness of the sense of freedom for one’s country is something one feels inside and that comes at a price. It’s easy to feel moved while listening to these true stories charged with realism. Admission is free.
A short distance from the museums, the Livingston County Courthouse (112 W. Madison St.) – with its beautiful Napoleonic-era architecture where the dark red color stands out – does not go unnoticed. If it could speak, the building would tell of the frequent visits of the young lawyer Abraham Lincoln, to whom a statue is dedicated in the adjacent square.
In the streets around the courthouse square, you can go shopping bearing in mind that Pontiac city center is not big. A map showing the stores can be found at the Route 66 Museum and the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum. Large chain stores such as Walmart and Walgreens are on the west side of Pontiac, near the intersection of I-55 and Route 116.
There’s also a sort of open-air museum that can be enjoyed by taking a stroll downtown among 15 miniature art cars produced from the imagination of local artists. They’re really cute with their bright colors; they’re the size of a child’s car and they can be found on street corners. They are the subject of continuous photoshoots that capture the variety of styles that they have been decorated in.
Also worth a visit, or at least a look, are some historic houses just outside the center. Some of them date back to the 1800s. They include the Strevell House (401 W. Livingstone St.), which belonged to the lawyer of that name who was a friend of Lincoln’s, the Yost House (298 W. Water St.) with its period interior decorations, and the Jones House (314 E. Madison St.), the oldest brick house in the city.
Three pedestrian bridges cross the Vermillion River in landscaped areas. The oldest dates back to 1898 and connects the river from Riverside Drive to Play Park (303 E. Grove St.). The second bridge, built in 1926, connects Play Park (303 E. Grove St.) to Chautauqua Park (100 Park St.). The third dates back to 1978 and is located inside Humiston-Riverside Park on Oak Street. It’s worth going across them; it’s an experience.
If you prefer to leave your car (or rental car) parked for a moment, you should know that on Saturdays during spring, summer and fall, the characteristic Jolley Trolley runs, making stops at points of interest while you can hop on and off as you please. You can check the details of this service on the institutional website.
Some city events make visiting Pontiac even more interesting. Depending on the calendar, around September 20-25 the Threshermen’s Bluegrass Festival (Threshermen’s Park-14975 E.2200 N. Rd.) is an event involving bluegrass bands from all over the country. The already bubbly atmosphere is enlivened by food vendors catering for the crowd that has flocked here in droves. The building that hosts the concerts is not equipped with chairs, so everyone brings their own from home.
Dinner Theatre at the Eagle is not really an event, but an enjoyable routine of theatre performances at dinner that takes place year-round at the Eagle Performing Arts & Conference Center (319 N. Plum St.). The Outdoor Farmer’s Market (Courthouse Sq.-downtown) is the quaint farmer’s market that takes place every Saturday from June to October from 8 to 11 a.m. Visiting it means having a nice opportunity to learn about local life ….. and there’s no shortage of curious characters!
Where to Eat in Pontiac
We are here in town and want to experience the local cuisine. A few restaurants come to our attention. Old Log Cabin Inn (18700 U.S. 66) has a casual atmosphere where freshly prepared home-style dishes are served at breakfast, lunch and dinner , also on the patio. Pontiac Family Kitchen (904 W. Custer Ave.) is a restaurant that serves good, reasonably priced American cuisine in a family atmosphere.
In a pleasant and fun atmosphere, at Edinger’s Filling Station (423 W. Madison St. – downtown), you can eat American-style breakfast and lunch on Tuesday through Saturday at reasonable prices. Delongs Casual Dining (201 N. Mill St.) is a mid-to-low-priced lunch and dinner spot with a casual atmosphere. The managers are proud to say that their dishes are homemade, prepared daily with local ingredients. A fun fact: you can create your own cream composition: you choose candies, nuts and other goodies and everything is mixed in the form of a cream. We’ve never seen this before and it’s really original.
Where to Stay in Pontiac
Some of the accommodations present in the city are worth a mention:
- The Quality Inn (1823 W. Reynolds St.) belongs to the well-known hotel chain. Rooms and suites have microwaves, refrigerators and coffeemakers. Some rooms can accommodate pets. The property features a fitness center.
- The Hampton Inn (2000 Grand Prix Dr.) is within walking distance of local points of interest and restaurants. Rooms feature free wi-fi, mini-fridges and coffeemakers. A breakfast buffet is included, and then there’s a heated indoor pool, fitness center, meeting room, business center, and a 24-hour store selling snacks, ice cream, and drinks.
An alternative to classic accommodations is the Livingston County 4-H park campground (181424 H Park Rd.), open from spring to fall accommodating tents, RVs and caravans. Four-legged friends are welcome on leashes. The facility has grills, picnic tables and playgrounds.