In decades past, travelers along Route 66 might stop for a bite at The Mill, a Lincoln, Illinois, restaurant built in the shape of a Dutch windmill. The little eatery was among many attractions that once dotted the iconic highway, and its ever-changing menu offered an eclectic selection of dishes: wiener schnitzel sandwiches, ham and peanut butter on toast, ice cream, and the occasional squirrel dinner.
The Mill shut down in 1996, but an 11-year restoration project has given the restaurant a new life, John Reynolds reports for the State Journal Register. Over the weekend, The Mill reopened as a museum dedicated to exploring Lincoln’s ties to Route 66.
The Route 66 Heritage Foundation of Logan County, a non-profit group, raised $90,000 to restore the derelict building. The Mill’s crumbling roof and broken windows have been fixed, and the original flooring has been restored. Inside, visitors can find transportation-themed displays—like a robotic replica of a former Lincoln gas station— and items from other local restaurants that once thrived in the area.
“Route 66 is one of the most iconic, special places anywhere in America,” Governor Bruce Rauner said during The Mill’s opening ceremony, according to Reynolds. “It is what America is about—the freedom of the road, exploring our communities ... and coming to the local tourist destinations.”
The now-defunct 2,448-mile highway was a diagonal road that ran between Chicago and Los Angeles, according to The National Historic Route 66 Federation. When it opened in the 1920s, Route 66 provided a vital route to the Pacific coast for America’s burgeoning truck industry and linked hundreds of rural communities to Chicago.
During the Depression era, thousands of migrants traveled to California along Route 66, trying to escape the drought-ridden Dust Bowl of the Great Plains (Steinbeck famously referred to the highway as the “mother road” in Grapes of Wrath). Automobile traffic on the highway proliferated during the postwar years, and restaurants, gas stations, and motels began cropping up along Route 66, offering travelers a place to rest and refuel. The highway became a fixture of pop culture, inspiring—among other things—Nat King Cole’s classic 1946 song and an ambitious 1960s TV show.
The Mill dates back to the early years of Route 66. In 1929, Paul Coddington opened his Dutch-inspired restaurant, which he called The Blue Mill. The manager’s children dressed in Dutch costumes, while waitresses served the decidedly non-Dutch dish of fried ham, peanut butter, and mayo sandwiches, according to an Indiegogo fundraising page for the restaurant. Soon, Coddington established a reputation for serving up sandwiches "at any hour of the day or night," writes Kevin Barlow at the Pantagraph.
In 1945, the restaurant was purchased by Albert and Blossom Huffman, who attached an old army barracks to the building. They painted it red and converted it into a dance hall, where live country bands would play on the weekend.
Between the '50s and '80s, Route 66 was gradually replaced by larger, multiple-lane superhighways that could better accommodate heavy traffic, according to Robert McHenry of Encyclopedia Britannica. The Mill soldiered on for a few years, reinventing itself as a museum of oddities complete with a 20-pound stuffed catfish, a noise-making toilet and a mechanical leg that dangled through a hole in the ceiling. But The Mill shut down in 1996, and the building fell into a state of disrepair.
Now, curious patrons can visit the historic building that offered up food and fun to many Route 66 travelers. The team behind the restoration has preserved much of the Mill’s flavor: the building is still bright red, a windmill sail still churns outside and if you look up, you'll see a disembodied, robotic leg still dangling from the ceiling.