As you continue to travel southwest, you’ll soon pass through the small town of Chenoa, Illinois. Getting its start in 1856, the town was the perfect spot as the Peoria & Oquawka Railroad and the Chicago and Alton Railroad intersected here. In addition to the railroads, Route 66 and U.S. 24 also intersected here, bringing many travelers through the small town. Today this sleepy village of about 1,800 souls sits quietly off of I-55, bypassed by speeding cars whose passengers are seemingly unaware of its existence.
The town was founded in 1854 by Mathew T. Scott to provide a retail and trade center and as a grain shipping facility for area farmers. After the Chicago and Alton trains had been running through the small settlement for almost two years, an official townsite was laid out by Matthew Scott in May 1856. At that time the Peoria & Oquawka Railroad was making plans to also come through town. Scott, who was an experienced land developer from Kentucky began buying thousands of acres of land in this area. The word, “Chenoka” or “Chenoa”, is one of many Native American names for the Kentucky River, for which Scott named the town.
In the beginning, the settlement was actually two rival towns – Chenoa and East Chenoa with the railroad tracks dividing the two communities.
Matthew Scott, in the first advertisement for the town of Chenoa appearing on May 15, 1856, stated:
“The only crossing of railroads likely to be made within McLean County within four or five years, and persons can easily ascertain that the connection of the two roads will be affected by the first of November or December.”
He went on to explain that, while there was no large body of timber nearby, coal would be furnished at twelve cents a bushel and cheap lumber, poplar, walnut, and oak would also be brought in by the railroad.
Scott further enticed customers who agreed to build a home that was worth $400 to $500 within six months of buying a lot, that their terms would include two years of interest-free payments. He also agreed to take a quarter interest in a steam sawmill and would donate sites for churches, schools and a cemetery. To keep the town “upstanding”, Scott marketed that anyone who sold liquor in his town would forfeit the title to their property.
The first structures in the city were two small half-sod and half-board dugouts which served as a depot, freight house, and shelter for railroad section hands. A year before the town was laid out a Pennsylvania man named J. B. Lenney put up a frame building called The Farmer’s Store in 1855. Lenney took an active part in the development of the town and often referred to as the “Father of Chenoa.” In 1856 the National Hotel was built. In 1864 Chenoa and East Chenoa were merged into one town.
In 1891 the first electric lights were installed and before long, a union station was built so both railroads could share passenger facilities. Three years later, in July 1894, the entire business district east of the railroad burned down. More than 20 years later, in November 1918, the Union Station burned down. A new depot was built, but, over the years, as train traffic diminished, it fell into disrepair. It was razed in 2009.
In 1926, when Route 66 was built, it barreled right through Chenoa, and the town responded with new businesses to service the travelers.
Two currently active businesses here are notable due to their longevity. They are Schuirman’s Drug Store (now Chenoa Pharmacy) and Union Roofing.
The town school system closed at the end of the 2004 school year, consolidating with the nearby Prairie Central school district.
Other points of interest include the Matthew T. Scott House, a 19th Century restored home, Steve’s Cafe building, and the vintage Chenoa Pharmacy, which is a member of the Route 66 Hall of Fame.
Just about ten miles further down the road finds you in one of Illinois’ oldest towns – Lexington, founded in 1928. Named after the Massachusetts battleground, the town was bustling during its Route 66 heydays, with nine gas stations and numerous eateries and motels. Unfortunately in June 1970 a fire destroyed or damaged many of its businesses and buildings.
Though settled down now to a quiet small town, it continues to celebrate its heritage of the Mother Road with murals on its buildings and a walking trail called “Memory Lane.” This one mile stretch of pavement is an original section of Route 66 that has been preserved as a park, complete with billboards, Burma-Shave signs, and more.
While in Lexington, be sure to check out the historic Patton Cabin, built in June 1829. Unusual to the westward settlement of America, the cabin was built with the help of the Kickapoo and Delaware Indians by the area’s first settler John Patton. This historic building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located on North Cherry Street in P.J. Keller Park.
As you drive through Lexington you’ll catch glimpses of Route 66’ former glory at the Filling Station Café built in the 1940s and at the edge of town, an old abandoned Oasis Drive In, now in ruins.
Another nine miles down this old stretch of road you come to the small town of Towanda, home to less than 500 residents.
Long before settlers came to the area that would one day become the village of Towanda, it was called home by the Kickapoo and Pottawatomie. They forfeited much of their land in a “peace treaty” in 1919. In 1830, those who had not already left the area were vacated with the Indian Removal Act.
The first settlers to the area arrived from points east in 1822 finding vast stretches of prairie interspersed with swamps and ponds and only small tracts of timber. Though some moved onward and others returned to the east, a few hardy families stayed, draining the swamps, breaking the sod, and tilling the soil. Before long more settlers arrived and began building roads and establishing businesses.
John Trimmer and family were the first settlers of what would become the Towanda area, making their way coming in 1826, following along an Indian trail from the Wabash country and settling at a grove that would later be named Smith’s Grove. By 1828, Trimmer operated a blacksmith shop at the head of Money Creek. Frederick Rook came soon afterward but later moved to Livingston County. In 1830, David Smith settled at the grove, for which is named for him, and began homesteading. The first preacher was John Dunham at Smith’s Grove in 1832. In about 1837 Elbert Dickason and John Pennell erected a sawmill on Money Creek. William Halterman settled on the prairie in 1840. William Bishop was appointed the first area postmaster on June 7, 1843. He would go once a week, on horseback, to the post office at Fifer and return with the mail.