Two Route 66 landmarks in Springfield face an uncertain future.
Hours at Shea’s Route 66 Museum, 2075 Peoria Road, ended following the 2012 death of founder Bill Shea Sr., whose name was synonymous with the museum and Route 66. Family members are considering what to do next.
A “closed for repairs” sign went up more than two weeks ago at Joe Rogers’ The Den Chili Parlor, 820 S. Ninth St.
Shea’s and Joe Rogers’ are fixtures in local, state and national tourism promotions of the Route 66 experience in Illinois. Both are on the Ninth Street-Peoria Road corridor that was among the routes followed through Springfield by the historic road.
“It’s such an important part of our marketing, including international marketing,” said Gina Gemberling, acting director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Gemberling said word of the uncertainty facing Shea’s spread quickly among Route 66 communities and preservation groups.
“They are continually asking us, ‘What’s going to happen toB?’” Gemberling said.
“I hate for anything on Route 66 to close,” said Bill Shea Jr., who now watches over the Shea’s Route 66 Museum operated for decades by his father.
William “Bill” Shea Sr., who died in 2012 at age 91, was as much an attraction on Route 66 as his gas station-museum. The visitor logbook contained signatures from across the globe.
Dressed in his vintage Marathon attendant uniform, Shea walked visitors through life on Route 66 when the road was dotted by service stations that still checked oil and cleaned windshields, all night café-diners and neon-lit, mom-and-pop hotels.
He was inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame in 1993. The building is packed with Route 66 memorabilia.
Shea Jr. said the property went to probate court after his father’s death and that it could take until this fall to resolve legal issues. While regular hours ended in 2012, the younger Shea said he occasionally hosts special visitors. A group from Germany was scheduled to visit last week.
“I finished up all the appointments that he had,” said Shea, who is 65 and retired. “People were still coming by the bus loads.”
He said he has no specific plans for the museum while probate continues, but that there have been offers for pieces of his dad’s Route 66 collection. Shea said his preference is to keep the building and the collection together.
“I’d like to see it turned into a Route 66 visitors center,” said Shea, “and maybe have my dad’s name on it.”
There have been informal discussions, said Gemberling. But as with past ideas for a Route 66 visitor center, there is no money.
“It comes down to funding,” Gemberling said. “We know how important it is (Shea’s). We’d like to save it, but where are the dollars coming from?”
Joe Rogers’ The Den Chili Parlor has been closed for two weeks, with no indication of when, or if, it might reopen. Owners Ric and Rose Hamilton didn’t return calls requesting information about the status of the business.
Efforts to reach Marianne Rogers — daughter of Joe Rogers, who founded the chili parlor in 1945 — also were unsuccessful. Rogers has proprietary rights to the special spice blend used in the chili.
Emilio Lomeli knows a business can’t run on nostalgia alone.
Lomeli and his wife, Rosa, blended two Springfield greasy-spoon legends — The Coney Island and Sonrise Donuts — in 2012.
The Coney Island — Springfield’s second-oldest restaurant — operated from the 100 block of North Sixth Street from 1919 to 2000. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum now occupies its original site.
The Lomelis moved the business to 1101 S. Ninth St., the home of Sonrise Donuts. The diner with its original Formica counter and red stools opened in 1947 as Springfield’s first doughnut shop with a coffee counter.
The hybrid — now known as Emilio’s New Coney Island — blends menus and motifs from both businesses, as well as the Lomelis’ own Mexican dishes.
“We try to keep the spirit of The Coney Island alive,” Lomeli said. “But we need the people to help us, keep coming. Many still don’t know we’re here. They’ll see me at the store and say, ‘When are you opening?’
“I’m open now.”
Lomeli said business has picked up a bit since The Den has been closed.
“We’re not really competition. Some people go there, some here,” he said. “I try to help them for now. Maybe they’ll go back when it reopens. We’ll wait and see what happens.”
Bill Klein is another person waiting.
He has spent the past two Saturdays discombobulated. The landmark chili parlor has been Klein’s Saturday lunch haunt for four decades.
“This has created a devastating hole in my Saturday because, as night follows day, I could be found at The Den on Saturday at noon,” he said. “I’ve watched kids grow up, talked about marriages. I send chili to my son in Tampa, (Fla.). When someone comes home for the holidays, it’s a tradition to go to Joe Rogers for chili.
“I hope they open soon.”
Pontiac ‘Hall of Fame’
Operators of the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac are among those watching Shea’s from afar.
The community is on a section of old Route 66 about 100 miles north of Springfield.
“We’d be honored to have some of the pieces in our museum,” said museum treasurer Martin Blitstein, who lives in Tinley Park. “They (the Shea family) are personal friends of ours and of the corridor.”
As in Springfield, said Blitstein, money is the issue. The Pontiac museum relies on donations, including for Route 66 collections. He said the museum drew at least 50,000 visitors in 2013.
Lillian Ford, owner of Ray’s Route 66 Family Diner in Sherman, said she could attest to the drawing power of Route 66.
“We have people from Australia, England, Ireland, Brazil and China,” said Ford. “They come from all over the world.”
Sherman is working on its own promotions of Route 66 connections, including a wayside park and exhibit at the north edge of the community.
“We get car and motorcycle tours,” Ford said. “There are so many things to make it popular. It’s the ‘Mother Road.’”
Bill Shea Jr. said, in addition to resolving the probate case, he must have the museum property appraised before making decisions. But he said he remains hopeful of maintaining at least a piece of his father’s Route 66 legacy.
“I’d like to have it there in memory of my dad,” Shea said. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”
Route 66 landmarks
* Shea’s Route 66 Gas Station and Museum, 2075 Peoria Road: Named for Bill Shea. Shea, who was inducted into the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame in 1993, worked in the Springfield gas-station business for nearly 50 years before converting the Marathon station to a Route 66 museum. Regular hours ended following Shea’s death in 2012 at age 91.
* Joe Rogers’ Den Chili Parlor, 820 S. Ninth St. Joe Rogers opened the original chili parlor in 1945 at 1125 South Grand Ave. E. Became known for “Firebrand” chili and allowing customers to custom-order. Moved to Ninth Street location in 1997. Rogers family sold to current owners, Ric and Rose Hamilton, in 2008.
Sources: Illinois Route 66 Associaton; archives of The State Journal-Register