Illinois calls itself home
to a little more than 5,000 people, but it's most photographed "citizen"
isn't a person at all. Rather it is the Gemini Giant, a large
fiberglass "muffler man" of the 1960's era. It was during this time
that these colossal men could be found all over America, holding all
manner of "tools" in their hands from mufflers, to hot dogs, to axes, and
more. In this case, the Gemini Giant sports a rocket ship, a remnant
of our fascination with outer space. Most of these very tall men
lost their lives as America began to move faster and faster. But
here in Wilmington, the large green man hangs tight, along with several other
historic icons of the past.
Wilmington was born when, in
1834, Thomas Cox acquired 400 acres of land from the government and built
a sawmill. He later added a corn cracker, a gristmill, and a carding
machine and the enterprise took on the name Cox’s Mills. Patronized
by settlers from as far 50 miles away, pioneers brought their corn and
Wilmington to be ground.
In the spring of
1836, the enterprising Mr. Cox laid out the town of Winchester and
began to sell lots. One such home, built of stone by Daniel McIntosh
near Forked Creek, still stands today just south of
Route 66. Another building built during this first year also stands - that of
the Eagle Hotel, which also became a stage stop. Later it would be
used as part of the Underground Railroad in the days before the Civil
yard was located on Main Street between Baltimore and Jackson where
wild horses were driven to be sold. Adjacent to the hitching
yard was the Westbound Stage Depot. The early stage that ran
Pontiac was routed on
Kankakee Street between River Road and Baltimore.
In 1837 a post
office was established in the new community and church services were
held in Peter Stewart’s barn. A year later the town’s name was
Wilmington. Before long
other entrepreneurs laid out new additions, a man named Elias Brown
opened another hotel, and Henry Brown opened a new store.
In 1839 a public
school was established and, soon after, a small school building was
erected. The next year saw the building of the town’s first
Chicago and Alton Railroad
pushed through town on July 4, 1854, it brought with it, added
prosperity to the city. In no time at all, land prices increased
Wilmington was incorporated
as a village.
Later many of the family homes in the area
became depots for the Underground Railroad prior to and during the
Civil War. Fugitives were hidden in attics, barns, wood piles,
hay stacks, or anywhere else that they might remain undetected.
The 1870s saw several manufacturing
facilities built in the burgeoning town including flour mill, a butter
and cheese factory, and a paper mill.
By the time
Wilmington responded with services for the many travelers of the Mother
Road. The Eagle Hotel, having served the stagecoaches of the past, now
served those traveling on the new trail to the west. In 1937, the Mar
Theatre opened at 121 S. Main Street containing 500 seats.
Delight would open in the late 1950's by John and Betty Korelc at 810 E.
Baltimore St. In 1965 they expanded the business and renamed it the
Launching Pad. That same year, John Korelc saw one of the famous Muffler
Men during a restaurant convention and decided to put one out front,
giving it his own twist by making it look like an astronaut. Naming it the
"Gemini Giant", after the Gemini space program, the icon would become one
of the most photographed on the Mother Road, and, along with the
restaurant, was inducted into the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame in 2000.
Korelc retired in 1986 and the business was kept alive under Jerry and
Sharon Gatties until 2007, but after the property was bought by Morey
Szczecin it struggled and finally closed for good in 2013. As of
April 2016 the fate of the Gemini Giant and the restaurant are still
unclear after it failed to sell at auction when the minimum bid wasn't