LINCOLN — Navy veteran Don Ritchhart, 90, still remembers eating schnitzel at The Mill, a popular restaurant along Route 66 in Lincoln.
The restaurant opened in 1929 and was still going strong when Ritchhart returned home after WWII.
“I ran around with Bob Huffman, one of the sons of the owners,” Ritchhart said. “He and I would close the place and clean up. … Every weekend there was quite a crowd here.”
The Mill closed in 1996, but on Saturday, the crowd was back as the historic building was dedicated as a museum that will celebrate the city’s link to Route 66. Local and state officials, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, were at The Mill to celebrate.
“Route 66 is one of the most iconic, special places anywhere in America. It is what America is about — the freedom of the road, exploring our communities … and coming to the local tourist destinations,” Rauner said. “Tourism is a driver of jobs and economic opportunity. Route 66 is going to be a boom in tourist destinations in the future, and The Mill is going to be a major part of that.”
Geoff Ladd, past-president of the Route 66 Heritage Foundation of Logan County, said they’ve been working for 11 years to restore The Mill, which sits on the original alignment of Route 66.
Paul Coddington opened the restaurant on July 25, 1929, as the Blue Mill. It was built in the shape of a small Dutch windmill with sails on the front. On opening night, Coddington’s children dressed in Dutch costumes with wooden shoes and passed out roses to customers, according to information from the museum.
Blossom Huffman purchased the restaurant in 1945 and ran it with her husband, Albert. After World War II, the Huffmans moved a barracks building from Camp Ellis in Ipava and attached it to the back of the restaurant. They painted the building barn red and ran it as a restaurant, bar and dance hall.
Ladd said the schnitzel served in Lincoln is an Americanized version of wiener schnitzel. In Lincoln, the dish is usually pork and resembles a breaded tenderloin.
After the restaurant closed in 1996, the building started to deteriorate.
To open the building as a museum, more than $90,000 was raised to replace the roof, replace and repair all 44 windows, restore the original floor, restore the restroom with ADA accessibility and replace the windmill sail.
Inside, the museum has items from local restaurants including the former Pig Hip Restaurant in Broadwell. They also have transportation-themed items such as a robot display from the former Illico gas station in Lincoln.
Visitors also can look up and see a prop leg that appears to fall through the ceiling. The leg was a part of the restaurant, and was typical of some of the unique attractions people saw as they drove along Route 66.
“It’s the quirky, bizarre things along Route 66 that hallmark the experience, particularly in Illinois,” Ladd said. “We have Paul Bunyan giants and Gemini…