Atlanta, Illinois, was born of the railroad—like many towns/cities in the United States—and when the railroads went, so did Atlanta. With a population hovering around 1,600 for the past few decades, Atlanta is not a withering city, but a small town welcoming visitors with a yellow smiley face painted on their water tower. Back in 2001, I remember driving through the town and seeing nothing but empty, rotting buildings, with the exception of the grocery store on Vine Street that had no signage indicating what it was. Today that market is still there with its front glass window subtly painted with the words “Country Market,” and it’s been joined by a few businesses that have not only been revived, but have a steady (though small) flow of customers daily.
A few years ago, Atlanta started reshaping its downtown to entice Route 66ers, and when Tall Paul was planted in the middle of Main Street it provided the first of many photo-ops as well as landed Atlanta on the very small map of towns/cities home to a fiberglass Muffler Man, here known as Tall Paul.
Tall Paul is one of an army of Muffler Men who invaded the American landscape in the 1960s-1970s. The fiberglass men, also known as Bunyon Statues, were used to entice drivers into visiting businesses in the automotive industry (muffler repair shops, garages, tire stores), but since they were such successful advertising tools, restaurants and other businesses purchased the fiberglass giants to claim their fair share of road traffic. The Muffler Men were made until the mid-1970s when the novelty of the roadside giants wore off. The business that created them—International Fiberglass of Venice, California—was sold and the original molds destroyed.
Over the years, many Muffler Men have disappeared, some never to be found again. The town of Atlanta purchased their Muffler Man from a hot dog business outside of Chicago, Illinois, hence the giant wiener in Tall Paul’s arms.
Across from Tall Paul is the Palms Grill Cafe. Built in the 1930s and opening its doors in 1934, The Palms Grill Cafe stood abandoned and fell into disrepair for decades until it was restored only a few years ago. Now Route 66ers can stop in for a home-cooked meal and talk with other road trippers, or the few locals who grab lunch. The Grill was also the main stop for the Greyhound Bus—just flick on the neon light that used to jut below the Palms Grill Cafe sign and the bus knew to pick you up.
Downtown Atlanta also has an arts and crafts store, a laundromat-cum-bookstore and a mini Route 66 museum, but its most famous stop (besides Tall Paul!) is the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum. The grain elevator was built over 100 years ago, in 1904, and was in use until 1976. The building was slated to be torched and used for fireman practice in the late 1980s, but local residents saved the building and turned it into an agricultural museum. The red angular grain elevator rises in the distance over the downtown area making for an interesting Regionalist scene. I’ve stopped here in the middle of the day; The Palms Grill Cafe is not as busy as I expected it to be.
There are only three cars parked in the entire downtown, one of them mine. No one drives down the main street (Arch Street) so I have the entire road to take photos of whatever I want. I walk into the grocery store and the metal and glass door slam behind me.
“Hello! How are you,” a woman stationed behind the cash register asks me, the register just a few feet from the one door in—the same one door out.
“I’m well. How are you?”
“Good, I’m good,” she says, and goes back to washing the graying rubber of her food conveyer belt with a roll of paper towels and Windex in her hands.
The aisles are empty of people but full of food. I grab a soda and chips, and the woman rings me up with a smile on her face and no conversation.
“Have a nice weekend,” I say to her.
She returns a smile, nods, and goes back to cleaning.
I walk around the town taking more photos, occasionally jamming some chips in my mouth and swigging Dr. Pepper. A Route 66 tour bus turns down Arch Street, stops in front of Tall Paul for a few seconds, and then drives away. Why they don’t stop and get out is beyond me, even if it is just to take photos of the neon sign for The Grill or of the Muffler Man standing in the middle of nowhere. Atlanta could use more attention from outsiders, and my guess is that somewhere on the outside of town is the monster Wal-Mart stealing area consumers away from the very reason families ever settled here. If the main street is not longer main, is it a main street? In Atlanta it still is, and I feel like someone needs to let the people who live here know that.