The funny thing about travelling is that you can set out for a destination, have expectations about how you will feel, and what you will get out of a place, and then when you get there, one walk through a door can change your idea of what that trip should be. This happened to me in a truly unexpected way over Memorial Day weekend when I went to Pontiac, IL. One of the main economies of Pontiac, IL, located about 90 miles southwest of Chicago is Route 66 tourism.
I somehow became fascinated with the “Mother Road” when I discovered, after moving to Chicago, that the road ran through Arizona, my previous home. The idea of that road as a connection between my beloved old home, and my new home-to-be stuck. I love the idea of the open road, of just getting in your car, and going, wherever the road takes you. This is the history that I had expected to immerse myself in when I set out on my day trip.
Most of the attractions are located within a four-block area, so it is fairly easy to see everything in one day. There is a main museum complex with four floors of Route 66 memorabilia.
Between the second and third floors, we saw a sign for the Livingston War Museum. More than one person told us that we had to visit this museum so that we could see the 266 mannequins dressed in donated military uniforms. The uniforms date back to WWI and represent all four services. War museums aren’t my favorite and because Route 66 was my purpose for being there, I thought we would just walk on. We didn’t.
We walked into the room, in awe of the life-sized uniformed mannequins. Soon after we arrived, JD & I got separated. He was essentially on a private tour with WWII vet Willis Harms. A few minutes later, I was greeted by David, who was wearing a “Vietnam Veteran” ball cap. As we continued talking and walked through the museum, he pointed out two uniforms in particular. One was his father’s and the other belonged to a friend of his who didn’t come home from Vietnam.
The museum was founded by Dal Estes, a WWII soldier who landed in Normandy on D-Day. For ten years, he tried to start a military museum in Pontiac, but was repeatedly told that his town didn’t need any museums, much less a war museum. They finally opened in November 2005, a few months after the Route 66 museum, with four jackets on coat hangers. Dal’s son David was one of those naysayers. David said he recalls telling his father, “Dad, nobody is going to come and see four jackets hanging on the wall.” They did come though.
Eleven years later, this small museum in Central Illinois has hosted visitors from every state in the Union, 72 countries, and six continents. Local veterans volunteer to host Skype chats with elementary classrooms all over the country.
Most of their donations are from within a 30-mile radius including the extremely rare Japanese automatic rifle, a captured WWII German flag, and a German felt and cardboard helmet.
I did not expect to be so moved by this museum. We spent more time there than we intended. It was like the place was asking for my time and respect. I couldn’t leave. I wanted to learn about the place that this town is so lovingly nurturing.
I enjoyed the rest of the unique things that I saw and did that day; visiting the Pontiac (car) museum, walking across the swinging bridges, going on a mural walking tour to learn about murals and “wall dogs”. I will write about them in a follow-up post. But this museum, celebrating a legacy of service, will continue to stand out, even though, or because it isn’t why I went to Pontiac in the first place.