Photographs and Text ©John P. Walsh
Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket
(above in 2016) is 22 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Its address is 645 Joliet Road, Willowbrook, Illinois.
The Chicken Basket is a mandatory dine-in or carry-out stop on a “Midwest Roads” visit. Vintage roadhouse decor and family-oriented service is joined to the menu which features fresh, succulent fried chicken cooked-to-order.
Opened in 1926
The business first opened in 1926 as a gas station and lunch counter on the brand-new Route 66. U.S. Route 66 traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles, California —a distance of more than 2,000 miles.
In 1939, fried chicken was served for the first time by its original owner, Irv Kolarik.
In 1946 the present one-story brick commercial building was designed and built by architect Eugene F. Stoyke (1912-1993) next to the original building. It was during the post-World-War-II travel (and baby) boom that it became a full-service restaurant.
Original windows and signage
Dell Rhea’s bay of 9 single-light-glass-and-wood-canted windows is original where an immense fireplace anchored the dining area’s north wall. The neon-and-metal sign in the photograph was original when this photograph was taken. It was replaced in 2017 with an exact replica. In 1956, a cocktail lounge was added to the south.
Bluebird Bus stop to St. Louis
In 1962 Interstate 55 opened—the major expressway connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans—and effectively retired U.S. Route 66 in this part of Illinois.
In front of the restaurant there was a Bluebird Bus stop (founded in 1927) which people could take to St. Louis or use to send packages across country.
In 1963 the Chicken Basket was bought by Chicago businessman Delbert Francis “Dell” Rhea (1907-1992) who knew how to invigorate the eatery while maintaining its tradition for a new era.
The popular Chicken Basket was owned and managed by the Rhea family until 2019. The Lombardi family took over with the promise to keep intact the original recipe which is unchanged since 1946 and continue the same Chicken Basket tradition.
These are some of my photographs featuring people, places, and things I have met and seen along today’s American Midwest roads.
I have a personal affinity and affection for the American Midwest. I grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, and went to school here and live here today. My family has been in Illinois since at least the 1830s.
Growing up in the Midwest, my experiences included family, friends, diverse outings, engaging jobs, and being married here. I love to explore this vast region that’s rightly called “The Heart of America.”
Memories of the Middle West — its sights, sounds, smells, and tastes — and mostly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan — are the mother’s milk of my life. In steamy summers, multi-colored autumns, ice-bitten winters, and flowering, reawakening springs to get outside to walk and ride on Midwest roads are pure adventure, then and now.
The American Midwest is filled with human stories and diverse and awesome natural beauty. There is timeless nostalgia, and, if such things don’t entice for the moment, unexpected curiosities.
For those who love it, the Midwest terrain carries all Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) spoke on in his last major book, The Sangamon. There is “magic in that soil, in the plains, the borders of forest, the oak trees on the hills,” the poet wrote. Masters was sure that “if you should drive through (this region)…strange dreams would come to you, and moreover those dreams would tally with mine.”
The region continues to offer the sightseer magical things. This includes its primordial aspects, such as animals, birds, natural outcroppings and waterways, as well as impressive remnants of Native American mound-building culture from the Midwest’s southern to northern reaches.
Edgar Lee Masters understood that it is the Midwest’s people – often defined as individualistic, hospitable, diverse, industrious, good-willed, courageous and independent – who imbue the region its greatest distinction. It is a populace and setting that, despite various economic setbacks and pockets of unfortunate decline, build and display what is often photographed on Midwest roads: historic canals, roads, barns and farms, houses. In the 21st century new things of interest can be seen on Midwest roads such as cellphone towers and wind turbines as older things, like barns and even some towns, decay or disappear.
Many famous American and international figures have lived and traveled on Midwest roads such as U.S. presidents, writers, actors, artists, business people, etc. This includes James Monroe (in 1785), Charles Dickens (1842), John Muir (1849), Henry David Thoreau (1861), Antonín Dvořák (1893), Winston Churchill (1946). Midwest natives include Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, Edgar Lee Masters, Walt Disney, Mark Twain, Jane Addams, Harry S Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Barack and Michelle Obama, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Jesse James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Dinah Washington (“Queen of the Blues”), and many, many more.
But It is Abraham Lincoln whose memory is most famously linked to Midwest Roads. Riding on his horse, “Old Bob,” Lincoln loved to travel the Eighth Judicial Circuit in central Illinois as a defense lawyer. It is to the 16th U.S. president and a Midwestern spirit he manifested to whom this photographic essay is dedicated.
SOURCES: E.L. Masters quotes from The Sangamon by Edgar Lee Masters with Introduction by Charles E. Burgess, University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago, 1988 (first published 1942), p.6.
The Ronald Reagan Trail (IL-26) is a route in Illinois that follows sites of interest associated with the 40th president of The United States. Reagan grew up in Dixon, Illinois.
Originally Route 26 ran north-south for about 25 miles from Freeport, Illinois to Polo, Illinois.
In 1937, IL-26 was extended about 15 miles north to the Illinois-Wisconsin state line and about 15 miles south to Dixon, Illinois.
In 1969, IL-26 was extended almost 100 miles from Dixon south to East Peoria, Illinois.
U.S. Route 20 is the longest road in the country. It stretches east to west from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon– about 3,100 miles.
Route 20 began on the East coast in the early to mid1920’s. The road reached Illinois in 1938 and is mostly unchanged since that time.
In 1955 the Illinois General Assembly designated the length of U.S. 20 in Illinois the U.S. Grant Memorial Highway. The sign in htis photograph was produced in late 2006.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a major program in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. To offset the deleterious effects of the Great Depression – including 25% unemployment – the CCC was active from April 1933 to July 1942.
In those nine years and 3 months the CCC employed upwards of 3 million young men. These men recieved their food, clothing and shelter along with a check of $30 a month (around $600 in today’s dollars), of which $25 of it had to be sent home to their families.
The Federal program provided manual labor jobs related to conservation and the development of natural resources. These work projects took place mostly on rural lands owned by government entities.
The CCC was specifically designed to give jobs to young men and to relieve their families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression.
In the early 1830s Illinois was the edge of the American frontier.
During the 1832 Black Hawk War, the 23-year-old Abe Lincoln of New Salem, Illinois, was a captain in the Illinois National Guard. This bronze statue in Dixon, Illinois, depicts that aspect of the 16th president’s life experience and career.
Lincoln enlisted in the Illinois Volunteers on April 21, 1832 near Richland Creek in Sangamon County which was located about halfway between New Salem and Springfield, Illinois. The next day, Lincoln mustered into state service at Beardstown, Illinois, about 40 miles to the west on the Illinois River.
Lincoln was elected captain, a position he said he was surprised — and proud — to receive.
Lincoln mustered into U.S. service near Janesville, Wisconsin on May 3, 1832. He mustered out on May 27, 1832 in Ottawa, Wisconsin and without having fired a shot.
On that same May 27, Lincoln re-enlisted as a private in Captain Iles’ company. When that enlistment expired Lincoln re-enlisted again in Captain Early’s company.
Lincoln finally mustered out of military service on July 10, 1832 at Whitewater, Wisconsin.
Young Lincoln was stationed in Dixon, Illinois, at Fort Dixon on the Rock River where this statue — unveiled in late September 1930 — stands. The sculptor is French-born Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944).
Crunelle’s immigrant family arrived in Illinois in 1889 and settled in Decatur, about 40 miles east of Springfield, Lincoln’s hometown. When Crunelle worked in the local mines, he started making fired clay sculptures. His work was brought to the attention of prominent American sculptor and teacher Lorado Taft (1860-1936) who brought young Crunelle to Chicago to study at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the same time, Crunelle began to do decorative work for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
The bronze sculpture of Lincoln – who later as a lawyer and politician expressed pride in his brief military service – is one of the first attempts to depict the Great Emancipator in his youth.
The Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, IL, is a popular 12-acre Japanese garden established in 1978. The gardens are on lands surrounding Rockford businessman John Anderson’s home. Anderson was inspired by gardens he visited in japan and other Japanese gardens in the U.S.
Under the guidance of Hoichi Kurisu, renowned master craftsman and landscape designer, the Andersons’ land along Rockford’s Spring Creek was transformed into an outdoor space of water, wood, stone, and flora representative of 1,000 years of Japanese horticultural tradition.
White Fence Farm was established in the 1920s by Stuyvesant “Jack” Peabody (1888-1926), the son of a wealthy coal baron. Jack Peabody opened the restaurant to feed his guests who visited his nearly 500-acre horse farm on the opposite side of a newly-opened U.S. Route 66.
In the mid1930s Peabody started to promote the domestic wine industry by featuring California wines at the restaurant.
Since 1954, the Hastert family has owned and operated White Fence Farm. Advertising itself as the “World’s Greatest Chicken,” the restaurant building has been expanded many times under the Hasterts. Within a country farm manor ambience, the popular restaurant boasts several dining rooms that can seat over 1,000 diners.
White Fence Farm continues to offer some of freshest and best-tasting fried chicken in and around historic U.S. Route 66. The restaurant is a perennially popular destination, especially on weekends and during the warm weather months, where people in the area as well as tourists arrive in droves.
see – https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/207904858/francis-stuyvesant-peabody; https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/213107315/may-henderson-osborne; https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/176456605/stuyvesant-peabody – retrieved October 19, 2021.
The small frame house, c. 1860, was moved or demolished before November 2018. The candy store, in business in West Dundee since 1998, reopened in another location “around the corner” by March 2017. see – https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/elgin-courier-news/ct-ecn-west-dundee-around-corner-candy-moved-st-0312-20170310-story.html – retrieved July 2, 2021,
In the early 1950’s, Alfred, Jr. (Mitch) and Norma Mitchell opened a small grocery store on the corner of Raynor and Curtis Avenues. In 1957, it was expanded to the present location adjacent to the original building. A short time later, Harley Mitchell joined his brother.
Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the U.S. (1981-1989), is the only U.S. president who was born, grew up and received his education in the state of Illinois. Reagan was a Eureka College graduate, class of 1932.