Throughout central Illinois, Abraham Lincoln left his mark on the countryside long before Route 66 ever barreled through the area. In these small towns along the Mother Road, you can not only enjoy the vintage era peeks of Route 66, but take an extended trip down historical roads along the same paths of of this great president.
Just some twelve miles southwest of Atlanta, Illinois, you will come upon President Lincoln’s namesake, a town for which he was partially responsible for founding. When Lincoln was a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he often visited the Postville Courthouse, located some 25 miles north of his home in Springfield. Postville, the predecessor to the town of Lincoln, was founded in 1835 by a man named Russell Post. Four years later, its growing population made Postville the county seat of Logan County in 1839. The Postville Courthouse was completed in 1840, housing offices for the sheriff, coroner, recorder, surveyor, county clerk, commissioners, and justice of the peace. Citizens came to the new courthouse to pay taxes, register their deeds, list strayed livestock, and conduct legal business with the circuit court.
Abraham Lincoln, like most lawyers of his day, traveled the circuit to make a living, as most communities were too small to support resident lawyers. As a junior partner of John Todd Stuart and later, Stephen T. Logan, Lincoln primarily handled simple, low-paying cases. In 1844 Lincoln opened his own law practice in Springfield with William Herndon as his junior partner. Lincoln most likely handled civil cases in Logan County, but little is known of Lincoln’s legal work there because the court records were destroyed in an 1857 fire. What is known is that his work in Logan County bolstered a very successful legal career and helped set the stage for later political successes.
In 1848, Postville lost the county seat to Mt. Pulaski, eleven miles to the southeast and Postville began to decline. When the Chicago and Alton railroad came through in 1853, it was located about a mile east of Postville. In no time, a new community sprang up in the vicinity of the railroad tracks. The town’s developers, Robert Latham, John D. Gillett, and Virgil Hickox, proudly asked their distinguished attorney, Abraham Lincoln, who also served as the railroad’s attorney, if he would agree to have the town named after him. Though Lincoln agreed, he reportedly also cautioned, “You’d better not do that, for I never knew anything named Lincoln that amounted to much.” When the town was officially christened on August 27, 1853, it was Lincoln himself who had the honor, doing so with the juice of a watermelon.
The first public sale of lots in Lincoln was held on August 29, 1853. Abraham Lincoln rode the train from Springfield, along with numerous prospective buyers. At the sale, ninety lots, ranging from $40 to $150 were bought by new prospective residents. The new town of Lincoln thrived, soon encompassing the old site of Postville and in 1855, Lincoln gained the county seat from Mt. Pulaski. The old Postville Courthouse was sold for $300 to a man named Solomon Kahn, who used the building briefly as a store and later as a post office. As decades passed, the old courthouse was used as a private home.
Farming was the initial basis of Lincoln’s economy; however that changed when coal mines began to built in the area. Before long, numerous new businesses providing hardware, building materials, food and professional services sprouted up in the community.
The main road in Logan County, originally the Springfield Stage Road paralleling the railroad alignment, became State Route 4 in 1918. In 1926, it became Route 66, bringing with it auto courts, restaurants and service stations to the community.
In August, 1929 automobile magnate Henry Ford purchased the old Postville courthouse and its one-block site for $8,000. Ford planned to dismantle the structure, move the pieces to Michigan, and rebuild it as a Lincoln memorial at his Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. By the end of September, the old courthouse had been dismantled and every stone was gone. The Postville Courthouse was rebuilt in time for the grand opening of Greenfield Village on October 29, 1929 and continues to stand today in Dearborn, Michigan.
After dismantling the old courthouse, Henry Ford donated the block, to be used as a park, to the Logan County Historical Society. However, for two decades the block stood empty. During Lincoln’s centennial in 1953, the city of Lincoln presented the block to the State of Illinois, as the first step in creating a Lincoln memorial. The state soon began construction of a replica courthouse on the original site and in 1956 a local museum collection was installed on the first floor. The second floor was furnished as a mid-nineteenth century courtroom and offices. Today, the Postville Courthouse State Historic Site, located at 914 Fifth Street, is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays.
Lincoln is also home to the Lincoln College Museum, which houses a sizeable collection of Lincoln artifacts and memorabilia. The Lincoln College Museum is located at 300 Keokuk Street.
The Logan County Courthouse, on the square in downtown Lincoln, is surrounded by stores and restaurants that speak of its vintage past. Here in the square is the century old courthouse, built in 1905, one of the few historic courthouses in that state that is still being used for its intended purposes. Be sure to check out the number of repainted old advertising and murals on Lincoln’s downtown buildings.
Route 66 runs right through the center of town, where you can get numerous glimpses of the era. The Tropics restaurant, opened in 1950 at Woodlawn and Lincoln Parkway, is unfortunately closed today. Original owner, Vince Schwenoha, served in Hawaii during a tour of duty, so he named his restaurant The Tropics. The original restaurant sign still stands with its signature neon palm tree.
At 738 Washington, you can see the remains of the Old Mill Restaurant that became famous for its schnitzel shortly after it started business in 1929. Family owned and operated it served thousands of Route 66 travelers up until 1996, when it closed its doors forever. Over the years, the building badly deteriorated and in 2005, was slated for demolition. However, the following year, a “save-the-mill” campaign began, and in 2007, the building began renovations.