PONTIAC, Ill. – Pontiac wasn’t supposed to happen on "The American Road Tour with Bill Davidson." It was going to merely host a quick stop and then riders would be on to another city. But tour organizers didn’t count on Pontiac's Mayor Bob Russell and its residents -- they know how to roll out a red carpet. And they keep it rolling.
"We want to educate people about all that the Illinois portion of Route 66 has to offer," Russell said, his eyes still sparkling at the reality of a motorcycle tour led by Harley-Davidson Museum Vice President Bill Davidson making a day-long stop and an overnight in his town.
Pontiac, Ill. (population, 12,000), about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, is staking its claim to the ultimate Route 66 travel experience – so much so that ride planners for "The American Road Tour with Bill Davidson" reconfigured the travel schedule to include the city.
"This was only going to be a quick stop for us, but once I spent some time here and met the people of Pontiac, I decided it had to be on the schedule," tour organizer Richie Finney of Saddletramp Tours told the group of his decision to shift the tour stops after he saw it during the ride with his advance team.
The stop was more than just "on the schedule" – the group drank it in as Pontiac served up experience after experience, creating that picture postcard of middle America at every turn.
Road-weary after three days touring Route 66 on the motorcycles, riders were treated to chauffeured rides to dinner in Pontiac by antique car enthusiasts who polished up their rides for the occasion. Move over Uber and Lyft – these people brought out their prized rides – old Pontiacs, ’57 T-Birds and Caddies and proudly shuttled the group to a local restaurant.
As guests loaded into Alan and Lian Finkenbinder’s 1929 Franklin, Ellie Alexander, Pontiac tourism director, pointed out that Russell and the residents think it’s time for Pontiac to find its rightful place as a destination on Route 66 and not just a pit stop.
"We have so much to offer and we are working hard to educate people about Illinois Route 66," she said. "People always seem to want to start farther west but we want them to see how much of the Route 66 experience they can have right here."
The evening was capped off by a stage set up in the shadow of the old courthouse in the town square, where the Vermillion Players, a local volunteer theater troupe, entertained guests with song and dance numbers as volunteers passed out free Dilly Bars from the local Dairy Queen to the audience. Their rendition of "America the Beautiful" somehow was even more poignant sung in the square of a town that just wants people to visit their piece of America.
Pontiac boasts a host of museums, including the Route 66 Hall of Fame Museum; the Pontiac Oakland Automobile Museum, featuring old Pontiac automobile manuals dating back to the beginning of the brand, rescued from a company trash bin by a proud Pontiac resident and museum tour leader; and the Livingston County War Museum, home to lovingly donated uniforms, weapons and other artifacts from the last 100 years of warfare. Tours there are led by local military veterans and history enthusiasts who were only too happy to repeat their stories for fascinated tourists.
There are 22 murals that depict Pontiac’s local history, and almost every resident visitors encountered could provide an anecdote or two about every one of them. It takes more than an anecdote to talk about airbrush artist Tang Dongbai. Dongbai came to Pontiac two years ago from Beijing, China, drawn to the city by his interest in murals. And he stayed. An art sensation in China, Chinese tourists now flock by the hundreds to Pontiac, Ill. to see Dongbai and the Dongbai International Airbrush Art School, which the city – and Bob Russell – helped him set up in April 2012.
"This is so incredible to have a talent like Tang here in Pontiac," said Russell as he proudly gave guests hopping off a trolley a tour of Dongbai’s studio which included airbrush work on everything from canvas to car hoods. "I still have to pinch myself every day that we were lucky enough that Tang is calling Pontiac home."
Dongbai hosts art camps in Chinese for artists from his homeland who want to come to the U.S. to study under his tutelage. Soon, after having now learned enough English, he will teach U.S. students.
For the group’s last stop, the setting was an enormous mural of Route 66 (with Pontiac, Ill. inscribed below the highway number) painted on the entire side of a downtown Pontiac building, fashioned into a perfect photo op – lined with flower beds and complete with a brick road for guests to drive on and park in front of the iconic road sign for a picture, either on a motorcycle or in a car.
And there was Mayor Bob, as he likes to be called, at his preferred post as tour guide and Pontiac, Ill. cheerleader, bidding farewell to his guests who were bound for Milwaukee, extracting promises from each to return. Residents lined the street to take photos of the Harley riders, each one shouting, "Tell your friends!" You’d be hard-pressed to find a rider who won’t.
Anne E. Schwartz is a veteran award-winning print and broadcast journalist who has worked for more than 25 years in the Milwaukee area writing about public safety issues. She was the reporter who broke the Jeffrey Dahmer story while at the former Milwaukee Journal in 1991 and wrote a book on the case, "The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough: The Story of Milwaukee's Jeffrey Dahmer." She is a nationally-recognized trainer on crisis communications and risk assessment for both the public and private sector.
Anne lives in Milwaukee's Third Ward. She enjoys cooking and takes culinary classes when she travels around the country and the world. She loves riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles with her partner Mark.