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. It first opened in 1926 as a gas station/lunch counter on the brand-new Route 66. In 1939 the original owner, Irv Kolarik, served fried chicken for the first time.
In 1946 the one-story brick commercial building was built next to the original building by architect Eugene F. Stoyke (1912-1993). It became a full-service restaurant during the post-World-War-II travel boom. U.S. Route 66 traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles, California —a distance of more than 2,000 miles.
Dell Rhea’s bay of 9 single-light-glass-and-wood-canted windows is original. The neon-and-metal sign in the photograph was also original (it was replaced in 2017 with an exact replica). A fireplace anchored the dining area’s north wall and, in 1956, a cocktail lounge was added to the south. 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 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 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.
Vintage roadhouse decor and family-oriented service is joined to the menu which features fresh, succulent fried chicken cooked-to-order. The Chicken Basket is a mandatory dine-in or carry-out “Midwest Roads” stop.
“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” is a popular rhythm & blues standard composed in 1946 by American songwriter Bobby Troup (1918-1999). It was a hit that same year for Nat King Cole who, with the King Cole Trio, first recorded the song. Troup got the idea for the song when taking a ten-day cross country trip with his wife in a Buick from Pennsylvania to California on U.S. Routes 40 and 66. The lyrics include some of the popular cities and towns on the route. Troup, who later became a film and television actor, certainly drove by what is today Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket on that historic road trip.
These are some of my photographs featuring the people, places, and things I have met along today’s American Midwest roads.
I have a personal affection for the American Midwest. I grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, and went to grade school, high school and university here.
Growing up In the Midwest I had my family, friends, diverse outings, engaging jobs, and, later on, married here. I continue to enthusiastically 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. Through steamy summers, multi-colored autumns, ice-bitten winters, and flowering springs to traverse Midwest roads spell adventure — both then and now.
The American Midwest is filled with human stories and diverse and awesome natural beauty. There is timeless nostalgia, and, when those things don’t entice for the moment, unexpected curiosities.
For those who love it, the Midwestern terrain possesses what Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) spoke about in his last major book, The Sangamon, as “magic in that soil, in the plains, the borders of forest, the oak trees on the hills.” The poet 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 including impressive remnants of an American Indian mound-building culture and encounters with animals and birds, wild and domestic. Edgar Lee Masters understood that it is the Midwestern people – individualistic, hospitable, industrious, good willed, courageous and independent – who bestow to the central part of the country its greatest distinction. It is this populace that, like the past, builds what is frequently photographed on Midwest roads and in its towns and cities: canals, roads, barns and farms, houses. In the 21st century new things of interest can be seen on a Midwest road trip– such as cellphone towers or wind turbines — while older things, like barns, disappear.
Many famous Americans and international figures have traversed the Midwest roads, some perhaps unknown or unexpected–James Monroe (in 1785), Charles Dickens (1842), John Muir (1849), Henry David Thoreau (1861), Antonín Dvořák (1893), Winston Churchill (1946). Others were born or lived here, such as 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 more.
It is Abraham Lincoln whose memory is most famously linked to Midwest Roads. Riding his horse, “Old Bob,” Lincoln loved to travel the Eighth Judicial Circuit as a defense lawyer. It is to the sixteenth U.S. president and the Midwestern spirit he manifested that 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.
Dixon, Illinois, 2017. The Ronald Reagan Trail 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. Route 26 originally ran north-south about 25 miles from Freeport, Illinois to Polo, Illinois. In 1937, IL-26 was extended about 15 miles north from Freeport to the Illinois-Wisconsin state line and about 15 miles south from Polo 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. It started on the east coast in the early to mid-1920’s. It reached Illinois in 1938 and is since mostly unchanged. In 1955 the Illinois General Assembly designated the length of U.S. 20 in Illinois the U.S. Grant Memorial Highway. The sign was produced in late 2006.
The CCC was a major part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Federal program provided manual labor jobs related to conservation and the development of natural resources on mostly rural lands owned by government entities. The CCC was specifically designed to give jobs to young men so to relieve their families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression. The CCC was active from April 1933 to July 1942. In those nine years and 3 months the program employed approximately 3 million young men who, with food, clothing and shelter included, earned $30 a month, of which $25 had to be sent home to their families.
During the 1832 Black Hawk War, 23-year-old Abe Lincoln was a captain in what is today the Illinois National Guard. Lincoln enlisted in the Volunteers on April 21, 1832 near Richland Creek in Sangamon County, about halfway between New Salem and Springfield, Illinois. He was mustered into State service the next day at Beardstown, Illinois, on the Illinois River almost 40 miles to the west and elected captain, a position Lincoln said he was surprised and proud to receive.
Illinois and adjoining states at this time were at the edge of the American frontier. Lincoln was mustered into the U.S. service on May 3, 1832 near Janesville, Wisconsin and mustered out on May 27, 1832 as they camped in Ottawa, Wisconsin, without having fired a shot. On that same day, Lincoln re-enlisted as a private in Captain Iles’ company and when that expired re-enlisted again in Captain Early’s company. Lincoln was finally mustered out of military service on July 10, 1832 at Whitewater, Wisconsin.
For a time, young Lincoln was stationed at Fort Dixon on the Rock River in Dixon, Illinois where this statue, unveiled in late September 1930, stands. The sculptor is French-born Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944). Crunelle’s immigrant family came to Illinois in 1889 and settled in Decatur, about 40 miles east of Springfield, Lincoln’s hometown. As Crunelle worked in the local mines, he started making fired clay sculptures. His work was brought to the attention of Lorado Taft (1860-1936) who brought young Crunelle to Chicago to study at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Crunelle also 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.
White Fence Farm was established in the 1920s by the son of a wealthy coal baron. Stuyvesant ‘Jack’ Peabody (1888-1926) opened the restaurant to feed his guests who visited his nearly 500-acre horse farm on the other side of the newly-opened U.S. Route 66. In the mid-1930’s 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 today some of freshest and best-tasting fried chicken along historic U.S. Route 66. The restaurant is a perennially popular destination, especially on weekends, and during the warm weather months, when 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 Anderson Japanese Gardens is a popular 12-acre Japanese garden in Rockford. Construction began in 1978, on the lands surrounding Rockford businessman John Anderson’s home. Anderson was inspired by gardens he visited in japan as well as other Japanese gardens in the U.S. Under the guidance of renowned master craftsman and landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu, the Andersons’ land along Rockford’s Spring Creek was transformed into an outdoor space of water, wood, stone, and flora representing 1,000 years of Japanese horticultural tradition.
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.