"That guy in the wheelchair has a couple of bucks worth of truck there," observed Richard Sparrow, a volunteer at the Texaco service station on Old Route 66 that has been repurposed as a visitors' center for Dwight, a village about 100 miles south of Chicago along Interstate 55. An intriguing-looking man in a toreador's hat and black ensemble was rolling away just after I showed up Friday, before I could strike up a conversation—a pity, there seemed a story there—and we were watching him drive off in a big GMC pickup.
"I've been to China three times," he said. "I've been all over the world and this is the best country in the world."
I did not argue, but enthusiastically agreed, particularly after I had the chance to nose around Dwight for a while.
But first the iconic service station, whose classic design caught my attention like a star flare. Meticulously restored, with tires and fan belts hanging in the garage, an antique car to pose on, and a jar of Tootsie Pops, alongside a sign explaining that this was a tradition when the place was operational, and owner Phil Becker's dad, Red, liked to hand out sweets to the children of customers.
"We invite you to enjoy a Tootsie Roll Pop in memory of Red Becker," said the last line of an explanatory sign, and I did, inspired by the generosity to select a red pop instead of my usual chocolate. I tucked it into my shirt pocket for future reference.
Sparrow had been sitting with another older gentleman on chairs in one of the gas station's service bays, and from a distance I had at first thought they were manikins, a small town tableau. But they were very real.
"So, what is there of interest in Dwight?" I asked, and Sparrow told me there is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed bank a few blocks away. Good enough for me; I had no other task that day but to get home, and plenty of time to explore. He gave me clear directions that I of course mangled, driving a bit around the lovely town—wide porches, quiet streets, an Amtrak station I figured would get you to downtown Chicago in two hours.
Hmmmm, I thought, imagining a call to the wife: "Sell the house honey, I found our new home..." Nah, not yet.
The bank is a lovely Bedford limestone building. To be honest, I'm not sure if I'd give it more than an admiring glance at its clean lines, if I didn't know about the Wright connection. Originally the Frank L. Smith Bank, now the Dwight Banking Center: People's National Bank of Kewanee, it really is an amazing structure, and I'll tell you why. Take a look at the photo below? As yourself when it was built. Got a year in mind? Now continue reading below the picture.
The bank was built in 1906.
It's an astoundingly current structure—to me, it looks like something from the 1950s, when popular architecture began catching up with Wright. (Not that I consider that an improvement; I'm more of a corinthian column kind of guy. There's no accounting for taste).
I went inside. The loveliest bank interior I have ever seen.
"Do you mind if I take some pictures?" I asked teller Iris Cregar She came from behind the counter.
"Let me turn some lights on for you," she said, illuminating a side room. "We have the original architectural drawings."
"Do you get a lot of people coming in to see the building?"
I noticed it was Free Popcorn Day, but didn't partake. I already had the lollipop from the Visitors' Center; I didn't come here to loot the place.
People tend to be very nice downstate. They catch your eye and nod at you on the street. The staff at the little restaurant I had eaten in the night before in Lichfield, The Ariston Cafe, had been so friendly, it was almost unsettling. The maitre d' had actually touched my arm, guiding me to my table. The waiter, Logan, could only be described as buoyant. He conveyed a basket of bread to the table with the panache of a magician producing a bouquet. They brought a guest book for me to sign. I half expected the staff to burst into song. The food, by the way, was quite good, and the decor didn't seem much altered from when the place opened up in 1924. I was reluctant to leave.
Yes, I know, the hidden flaws of small town America, better than most. I read my mail. But one downside of our culture is the need to fight every battle on every hill every time. I can't write that ice cream tastes good without one person mentioning fat content and another the oppression inflicted upon dairy cows, strapped into machines when they should be nuzzling their young with human-like affection. I do my share of dark cloud spotting too, sometimes.
But not all the time. I liked Dwight, enjoyed poking around—the historic train station across from the bank, the fairly-active Main Street. I felt vaguely guilty, digging into mind for any kind of association with Dwight prior to showing up by accident—I stopped because it was noon and I was hungry, I didn't even notice where I was exiting, only that it had dining establishments—and all I came up with was the Dwight Correctional Center. An old frame of reference, since the women's jail closed in 2013. There's much more to the place than that. They have a festival, Dwight Harvest Days, coming up September 20 to 23, including a parade, a car and tractor show, Cutest Baby Contest, and the 21st Annual Basset Waddle, which now that I think of it I've heard of as well.
Two hours from Chicago. It seems worth a visit. Where I ate lunch, by the way, the Old 66 Family Restaurant, is worth trying. Salads are a long shot downstate—you end up with a bowl of diced iceberg lettuce sprinkled with dry carrot shavings, with a few cherry tomatoes thrown in. I was considering the cheeseburger, always a safe bet. But I had a solid hour in the Holiday Inn's perfectly new, perfectly empty fitness center, and felt in a health groove. I had a good feeling about the summer fruit salad advertised on a card on the table, with grilled chicken and poppyseed dressing, and asked the waitress about it, and she rhapsodized the thing.
"It took me a year to try it," she said, sharing my skepticism. "But when I did..." She made an expression of rapture.
I inhaled the thing. Strawberries. Blueberries. Fresh romaine lettuce. Even the canned peaches seemed to somehow work. Or maybe I was just hungry. I almost told her, "You know, last month I ate at Alinea, the best restaurant in the world, and if they served me this, in a portion about an eighth the size, it would have fit right in." I formed the sentiment in mind to tell her. But that seemed pretentious, and perhaps not quite true, so I kept it to myself. But I tipped well and left content, hotfooting across the intersection to explore the Texaco station.
After my sojourn in Dwight, pulling back onto 55 for the long slog home, I remember the Tootsie Pop, unwrapped it, and enjoyed a lingering taste of small town sweetness.