Effingham is located some 200 miles from Chicago, due south on I-57--just far enough away for the locals to speak with a soft twang. You'll know you're nearly there when you see the first phalanx of billboards since Chicago. Two interstates, 57 and 70, crisscross in Effingham, and 25,000 vehicles pass through each day.
But the town existed before the interstates were built in the 1960s. In 1814 the first pioneers settled around the Little Wabash River, and other farmers soon followed. The railroad was constructed in the 1850s, bringing with it the town's first wave of hotels and stores. In 1859 Effingham, which is named for a British lord who refused to fight in the American Revolution, became the county seat. A second wave of hotels and restaurants sprang up in the mid-1960s to accommodate interstate travelers; today Effingham is home to four major truck stops at its two exit ramps.
Our favorite is the Bobber, I-57 and I-70 (217-347-7161), with its red-and-white decor, friendly staff, and vintage rainbow Lotto sign out front. It's a full-service, independently owned truck stop with all the amenities: a motel, knife shop, a 24-hour service bay, game room, laundry, and CB repair. It's also the only truck stop in town to feature coin-operated televisions at some of the booths. Many of the Bobber's 90 employees have worked there a long time, and the place has a homey feel. The restaurant's buffet ($5.59 for breakfast and $6.59 for dinner) offers a better salad bar than the other truck stops and includes collard greens. Showers are $6, and a room for two in the motel runs $30.28.
The first truck stop in town was the Effingham 76 Auto/Truck Plaza, 1703 W. Fayette (217-342-3914). Country music plays softly on the speakers in the convenience store, which sells costume jewelry and Roger Miller, Black Sabbath, and Patsy Cline CDs, among others. There's a nice selection of Zippo lighters with NASCAR racers on them and a revolving case of belt buckles. The atmosphere at its Country Fixins restaurant is relaxed; the evening buffet is $6.35 and features roasted chicken. There's also a game room with pool tables, laundry, and a barbershop. Showers are $6, and there's also a full-service garage.
Petro Stopping Center, I-57 and I-70 at W. Fayette (217-347-0480), is the Ritz of the truck stops--the newest with the most amenities, including a movie theater, UPS and Federal Express boxes, and a quiet room. It has everything but a motel. Its Iron Skillet restaurant has IQ peg games on every table, and it's only $1.69 to fill a thermos with coffee. The breakfast buffet is $4.99, and dinner, which sometimes features fried okra, ranges from $3.99 to $11.99.
We spent one night at Truckstops of America, I-57 and I-70, exit 160 (217-347-7183), watching Married With Children with a handful of truckers in its Country Pride restaurant. The buffet ($6.99, $5.99 for breakfast) was good, with excellent mashed potatoes and friendly service. The restaurant also has real iced tea. The truck stop has the usual amenities--TV room, laundry, showers, and a wall full of cordless phones.
If you prefer to stray from the truck stops for food, go downtown to Rexroat's, 221 W. Jefferson (217-347-5831), which is always packed with (middle-aged) locals. They serve a mean horseshoe sandwich--a 217 specialty that consists of turkey and ham on toast and is served with french fries covered with cheese sauce ($4.95). Although the salad bar has iceberg lettuce, it's one of the best in town, with beans, seeds, and pickled okra ($4.50).
Effingham is a town of cool signs. The best one might be the vintage Ramada Inn job with the butler logo that you can see from the interstate. The hotel, I-57 and I-70 (217-342-2131), was completed in 1963, just about the time the interstates opened. Owner Thelma Keller had the sign designated a historical marker, so when the chain made some antiseptic renovations several years ago the butler stayed. Keller pulls a lot of weight in town. She grew up on a farm there and then started her first business--a combination gas station and grocery store. She married local oil company magnate Lolami Keller, who later became the mayor. Up until her recent retirement, she could be seen working behind the Ramada's front desk. At 95 she still lives at the hotel--an opulent affair with a lavishly decorated lobby and beautiful indoor pool in a large, open room with plants. The massive complex also has a sauna, health club, 32-lane bowling alley, off-track betting parlor, lounge, jewelry store, and convention center. The service is friendly, and the hotel is a stone's throw from batting cages. Rooms range from $57 to $105 for two people.
Thelma's, the Ramada's in-house restaurant, is an upscale cloth-napkin place with a floral decor and original art on the walls (the other side of the restaurant is more down-home but features the same food). The house specialty is the Friday night "sea and land buffet" ($14.99); entrees range from $6.95 to $27.95 for lobster. Vegetarian entrees are available. Breakfast is served at 6 AM.
At the other end of the lodging spectrum is the Effingham Motel, located near downtown at 702 E. Fayette (217-342-3991), which runs $25 per night or $95 a week for one person. Its 16 units are air-conditioned and feature free cable with HBO.
Adventurous travelers may want to try the Camp Lakewood Campground on Effingham's Lake Pauline, 1217 W. Rickelman (217-342-6233), which has year-round hookups for campers ($16.50) and tent sites ($10 to $12). It's geared toward RV users, though; guests get free rein of the campground's dump station, cable hookup, game room, and sewer.
Lake Sara is located five miles northwest of town, 70 Wildwood (217-868-2964), and is stocked with bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish, and walleye. Anthony Acres (217-868-2950) has 28 cabins on the lake, and is open from April through November. Prices start at $72 per night per couple, or about $480 a week. Linens, towels, dishes, and cooking utensils are included, as are a private sand beach, fishing piers, and a game room. Nearby there's a water slide and an 18-hole golf course and mini course.
The salespeople will leave you alone to check out the big rigs at Heartland Peterbilt's fabulous showroom, 1901 W. Evergreen (217-347-5031). Peterbilts are revered among truckers as the Cadillac of rigs, and Heartland features the newest models as well as a fully restored 1956 model, with a cramped, padded sleeper and two uncomfortable looking seats.
Roadmaster, 1304 W. Jaycee (217-342-2688), the town's bike manufacturer, will give tours to large groups--as long as they can prove they're not spies from Huffy. The company produces some 2,000 cheap bikes a day on the plant's assembly line.
"There's nothing to do at night, unless you like to go to the movies or drink a lot," says Bobber waitress Margo McCarter. "That's pretty much all there is to do." She says she and her friends used to go dancing at Chaser's (217-342-9877). "But now that's turning country too." We didn't go there, but Thursdays feature local bands; Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays are country nights; and Saturday is devoted to rock. The cover at most is $3.
If you venture downtown at night, the dramatically lit Heart Theatre, 133 E. Jefferson (217-342-6161), with its glass block and old-fashioned neon sign will certainly catch your eye. The restored art deco theater features comfortable seats and one very large screen; even the bathroom fixtures are original. Unfortunately, a Robin Williams movie was playing when we were there.
The lot at Wal-Mart, 1204 Avenue of Mid-America (217-347-5171), was three-quarters full on a Sunday night; families shopped, while older residents dined at the McDonald's inside. The restaurant has portraits of Ray Kroc and Sam Walton on the wall with the caption "We Salute Two Pioneers." If you don't have the time to visit the restaurant proper, you can order your meal at the store's checkout lines, which are equipped with special place mats that have bar codes underneath photos of Big Macs and french fries. The checker simply zaps what you point to, and your order appears minutes later.
Ransacking small-town thrift stores can yield great rewards. Second Hand Rose, four miles north of Effingham on Route 45 (217-347-7334), is a resale shop run by Catholic Charities (all of the churches in Effingham are some brand of Christian) and requires a short drive out of town through flat farmland; it's located next to a place that sells parts for house trailers. It's worth the trip; the corrugated metal building contained such castoffs as a shiny red padded mod jacket that'd look great at Red Dog ($2), a pair of like-new Sorel boots ($1), a travel Trouble game (50 cents), knockoff Levi's ($1) and electric scissors ($1). It's run by really nice women who give great directions over the phone; they even threw in an orphan 1950s drinking glass for nothing.
The Elephant's Attic, 1100 W. Wabash (217-347-5993), is a combination tanning salon/lame consignment boutique full of middle-American 1980s wear. We took a minute to look around and left disappointed. The Pawn Shop, 510 W. Jefferson (217-347-5912), sells comic books, jewelry, electronics, ball cards, and CDs. But what struck us was how empty the place was while we were there (what's it a front for, we wondered); the one thing that stood out was the black velvet Hulk Hogan on the wall.
It's hard to pay full retail after paying $1 for boots that cost $100 at Sportmart. The outlet stores at the K-Square Manufacturer's Outlet Center, 1100 Avenue of Mid-America (217-342-4343), which is a stone's throw from the Ramada Inn, include L'eggs, London Fog, Collector's Dream (Bradford Plates), and a County Seat. The Village Square Mall, south on Route 45 (217-347-0623), is anchored by a JCPenney and a Rural King, which has a nice selection of overalls and union suits for under $20. The indoor mall also has an airbrush T-shirt stand with very cool art (and artist on premises), a hobby shop, a cinema, a pipe shop, and an old-school Playland game room with Asteroids and Pac-Man.
Daredevil high school kids from all over the state hit town the weekend of June 21 for the Illinois High School Association State Rodeo Finals. Classic cars take over the town in May for Cruise Night, and the Effingham County Fair, August 3 to 10, features the usual farm animals and rides, plus a demolition derby and tractor pull. Cotton-top seniors converge on Effingham for its two Big Band Weekends, which happen May 25 to 27 and November 1 to 3 at the Thelma Keller Convention Center.
As long as you're on the road, you might as well take along some accessories.
To find out how all those sociological theories about cowboys, work, and masculinity apply to short-haul truckers, local author Lawrence J. Ouellet's 1994 Pedal to the Metal: The Work Lives of Truckers (Temple University Press) makes perfect road reading--provided you're not the type who gets sick while reading in the car.
Music is important on the road: New York's Diesel Only Records releases seven-inch vinyl singles and distributes them to truck-stop-and-diner jukeboxes. The 1993 CD collection Rig Rock Truck Stop features rockin' country tunes ranging from the Five Chinese Brothers' "She's a Waitress (And I'm in Love)" to "Too Much Coffee" by Gwil Owen (Diesel Only Records, PO Box 440, Montclair, NJ 07042).
We picked up a pack of 18 Wheelers Premium Trading Cards, which are a lot like baseball cards and feature color photos of big rigs that range from a 1953 U Mack with 2.7 million miles on it to a fully loaded 1990 Peterbilt 379. Details and the CB handles of the drivers are listed on the backs. They go for $1 at selected truck stops. Call 715-839-9102.
Every truck stop is full of free trucking periodicals; most are smallish magazines crammed with help wanted ads. The best, by far, is the Rolling Stone-size Truckers News, the official publication of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators. It has quality photos and writing; a recent issue featured stories on subjects like truck stop safety, how to decorate your rig, and how women succeed in the male-dominated world of trucking. It sells for only a quarter at truck stops (Truckers News, 1199 N. Fairfax Street, Suite 801 Alexandria, VA 22314; call 703-549-2100).