This delightful recollection appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of our members-only newsletter, The 66 News. Enjoy a little blast from the past…from the past.
by Kent Sanderson
I entered the world in 1940 in Chicago where the road began. Dad was a seminary student at the University of Chicago at the tine. After he finished, we lived in Michigan for a while, then moved to Dwight, Illinois. Dad was minister of the Congregational Church on Delaware Street. We lived in the parsonage two houses north. It was a huge, two-story home with an attic and a large basement. At the time, Delaware Street was a brick thoroughfare, a WPA project from the ‘30s.
Life in Dwight was grand and provides wonderful memories – the steam locomotives, the billboard that listed the local servicemen and women, the Sip ‘n’ Bite ice cream shop where being “good” was rewarded, the Blackstone Theater where I saw Wizard of Oz for the first time, the barbershop overlooking the railway station, the five and dime, and many more. I saw a lot of Dwight because Dad took me with him whenever he and Mom called upon their parishioners. Sometimes when Dad made these calls alone, Mom and I walked downtown to patronize the local merchants. Usually, however, we just window shopped because money was scarce.
Neighbors on Delaware Street included Mrs Nelson next door, playmates Sandy and Barbara Hillman, Kenny Nevill and Dick Branz. I saw another friend, Buster Jacobsgard frequently because his dad and mine were avid bird hunters who carved wooden decoys wherever they could get together to do so (I still have a few of Dad’s old ducks and can’t believe the detail that went into them).
We’d drive on 66 in our ‘41 Oldsmobile whenever we went to the Jacobsgards or the Branzes. Usually we’d stop for gas at the intersection where Becker’s Marathon is now. There used to be gas stations at all four corners there! When we visited my grandparents in Milton, Illinois, we’d drive Route 66 south. This trip took us through strange-sounding places like Pontiac, Chenoa, Cayuga and Towanda that seemed to a boy as if they were on a different planet. One such trip on a snowy Christmas Day nearly ended in disaster when an old Ford with side curtains pulled across 66 in front of us.
After the war ended in 1945, my parents decided to move back “home.” It was a decision I didn’t understand and one that brought much sadness into my life. I remember pulling away from the big house on Delaware Street in the Olds for our new home in Pittsfield. The neighbors stood on the curb and waved. It was a sad event and for a long time I wondered when we were going back “home” to Dwight.
I grew to love our new home, but never completely forgot about Dwight and Route 66. In 1956 when I was a rebellious teenager, I bought a ‘41 Olds coupe for the princely sum of $200. The car’s only redeeming quality was that it was virtually indestructible. One summer afternoon, for reasons understood only by me, I decided I wanted to see Dwight again and took off in that direction, No map was necessary because the route was indelibly etched in mind, including all the turns required to get through larger towns like Springfield and Bloomington, even though it had been 11 years since I’d made my last trip. I stopped for gas at Dixie Truckers Home. Dwight’s silhouette appeared just before dark and I made a right turn off 66 at the filling station corner. Another right turn by the Catholic Church and another block down at the Congregational Church put me on Delaware Street. I parked in front of Mrs Nielson’s house and spoke with her while she sat on her porch. To my amazement, she recognized me and I was transported back to 1945. Former parishioners Elmer and Mary Bundersen invited me to spend the night and I was thankful. I’m certain nobody understood why I was there alone, even thought I offered some vague explanation about wanting to see Dwight again. My plan to find a job and live there was, no doubt, cause for some concern. I had to rethink this during the night, but still looked around for some kind of work the next morning. Naturally, there was nothing for an unknown kid from out of town. I was secretly grateful.
I got in touch with my friend Dick Branz that afternoon. He was working nights at the Standard station on 66 and asked me to join him during his shift. We filled gas tanks, checked oil levels and washed windshields non-stop until midnight. Dick convinced me it would be a good idea for him to call my dad and let him know I was safe and sound. It was great to hear Dad’s voice and I was struck with a consuming case of homesickness. I spend the night at Dick’s house. The next morning, his mom fixed a breakfast feast. Later, I made one more trip around Dwight to burn it all into my memory. Then I pointed the Olds’ long hood south and drove back home on Route 66.
My wife Mary Sue and I have driven Illinois 66 many times as members of the state association. Each time, I get a feeling of euphoria. We always drive through Dwight, sown Delaware Street, past the old parsonage that I would dearly love to walk thought just once more, and park downtown to stroll the streets that were mine fifty years ago.
I know Thomas Wolfe probably never drove Route 66 – it’s one road that can still take you home!