A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small town in Will County, Wilmington – founded in 1834 – is home to one of the most well-known Muffler Men statues to call Route 66 their own. Muffler Men are large fiberglass statues that were designed as roadside advertisements or attractions in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and most were inspired by the mythical lumberjack of Midwestern lore, Paul Bunyan. The result is a much-loved group of over 20-foot-tall statues sprinkled across the country, many on or near the Mother Road. In their heyday, there were hundreds of Muffler Men, and some women too, designed to promote businesses all across the nation and to inspire epic road trip adventures. Nowadays, only around 150 of these iconic statues remain.
“[He] is one of the most famous, if not the most famous,” said American Giants President Joel Baker. “There are probably a few different reasons for that, one being that it is the only surviving space version left, so it has a very unique look. [He] is also on a very well-traveled section of old Route 66 in Illinois, a state that has one of the largest [remaining] populations of Muffler Men.”
Standing at an enormous 30 feet tall and a hefty 438 pounds, Gemini was created during the space race era and named after America’s second space mission, the Gemini program. He is an impressive figure, fully outfitted in a one-piece green space uniform and a silver helmet. With a rocket in his hands, he is ready for his mission. His eyes are stoic but warm, and if visitors find him at the right moment, when the air is still and the giant is alone, there is an unexpected sadness that flows from his eyes. Gemini has remained loyal and protective over his little eatery for over 55 years now and has seen the rise and fall of Route 66 and his picturesque little town. He has witnessed his restaurant’s decay and change of hands numerous times, and he has watched as travelers forgot about him and the magic of the Mother Road. He has seen a lot. He may only be a fiberglass statue, but there is something more to this spaceman. His presence holds a million stories.
Standing adjacent to the aptly named Launching Pad Restaurant – originally the Dairy Delite – a longtime restaurant on famed Route 66 that was opened in 1960 by John and Bernice Korelc but later changed to The Launching Pad following an expansion in 1965 – Gemini seems more upbeat these days. And there is a reason for him to be. Things are looking up. Way up!
Driving Toward Destiny
Holly Barker and Tully Garrett, based in nearby New Lenox, Illinois, simply wanted to go antiquing. Every Thursday, Tully would take off work at his family’s insurance company and they would just drive. “We’d get in the car, no particular place in mind. We’d just put it in drive and head straight out. Where we ended up, we would end up,” said Tully. This tradition led them down a very unexpected path that day.
“So, I posted on my Facebook page, “Holly and I want to go antiquing. Can anybody give me recommendations?” Tully continued. “I got like 30 or 40 comments back. The majority of them said go to Wilmington, Illinois, on Water Street, which is their main street, and the entire downtown is antiques. [So], that’s what we did.”
The two jumped in the vehicle for the 25-minute drive to small town America, uncertain of what they would find. Despite living in proximity much of his life, Tully had never been to Wilmington. And even more ironically, Tully wasn’t even aware of the giant’s existence. This is actually not terribly uncommon across America’s Main Street.
“A lot of people would think that me living here my whole life, I’d be very attuned to Route 66 and what it has to offer. The reality is our [family] insurance agency was located on Route 53 in Romeoville, and it had been there since 1962. Now, Route 53 is the main highway from Chicago down through a large part of Illinois. And a lot of locals, I’m gonna say the tail end of the baby boomers and forward, have always [known] Route 53 as 53. There had not been a lot of hoopla in the 70s, 80s or 90s or forward of it actually being Route 66,” said Tully. However, historic Route 66 and Route 53 are actually one and the same as it passes through little Wilmington.
At the time, the couple didn’t even know that they were on Route 66. But they did enjoy the quietness of the road and peacefully absorbed their surroundings. Then, as the road curved, entering the town of Wilmington, there he was, Gemini. Quirky, looming. Impossible to miss.
“So, we came down Route 66. Again, I wasn’t even thinking that it was Route 66 yet. I was thinking it was Route 53, and we came around this curve… I noticed, as we traveled a little further south, five, 10, 15, 20 minutes, it was getting more rural, less density, and felt kind of like Tennessee,” said Tully. “So, the long and short of it is that Holly and I were in the car and, as we’re coming around this curve, it started to straighten out, and the very first thing we saw, about 200-300 yards away, was the statue of the Gemini Giant. I had never seen it. I had never heard of it. Holly hadn’t, either. We found ourselves being tourists, and not even knowing it.
We got out of the car and walked up to the statue. At this point we didn’t even see the building. We went up and looked at this spaceman. We were perplexed, like, what is it? At the same time, there were about four or five cars in the parking lot. The very first thing that caught my eye was a gentleman to the left of me,” Tully continued. “He had a really strange accent. I said to him, ‘Are you from around here? You sound like you have some type of accent. What are you here for?’ He pointed straight at the giant and went, ‘I’m here to see the Gemini Giant.’ This guy’s from India, Egypt, wherever he is from, and there he is pointing to [Gemini]. It was a big deal for him.”
Baffled, the couple observed as international tourists from across the globe arrived to pay homage to the Gemini Giant and to historic Route 66. They chatted with them and asked about their journeys and stood amazed at the lure that this little spot in a rural Illinois town had on travelers from across the world.
“They would take pictures and leave. Another two to three cars would come, it was just continual for that entire hour,” said Holly. “We thought it was kind of neat. We did the tourist thing, we got our picture, jumped in [the car] and did the antiquing a couple blocks away. As we were heading back, we took a look over. Again, the parking lot was getting full. We were like, holy smokes.”
Holly and Tully felt a deep urge to stop one more time. They were drawn to the giant. This time, they stayed for half an hour, and then finally noticed the dilapidated eatery. At first, they couldn’t even determine what it was, or what it used to be. Perhaps a convenience store or an old gas station? Holly looked inside and thought that it could have been a restaurant due to the decrepit machinery. Finally, she noticed a “For Sale” sign tacked onto a dirty windowpane. Holly Barker made a decision there and then: “We need to save this place.” Barker, who had experience working in restaurants from the day she turned 16, could see a future at The Launching Pad and felt an immediate connection.
Tully thought to himself, “I’m a preservationist. I love saving old things. I’m not a fan of these communities where developers come in and tear down the old buildings and put in little formulated strip malls with nail salons. You go from one town to the next and they all look the same, and you’ve lost the fingerprint of that community.” He was on board. So, in October 2017, the couple purchased the property with its legendary fiberglass man and got down to work. But whatever was Gemini thinking at this point?
Loss and Love
Perhaps kismet led these two to each other. After all, nothing is more universal than grief. In the prime of their young lives, both Holly and Tully had lost their spouses unexpectedly to cancer. In Barker’s case, her high-flying executive husband Jordan, was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2007. It was a tragic blow.
“He was a Canadian and he was down in North Carolina setting up a service center for his company. I met him when I was living in Asheville, and we dated for a short amount of time. We were both 28 years old [and] got married after six months! He was diagnosed with malignant melanoma skin cancer. Our son Jackson was six years old at the time. It was a very serious form of melanoma; the possibility of him being alive in 10 years was about 20%. We had to go through treatments at Duke University Medical Center for an entire year,” said Holly. “After [several] years of living in North Carolina he was offered the opportunity to move to Canada to run the Canadian operations for his company, so in 2009, we relocated to Ontario, and he lived another five years. He was re-diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2014.” He died six weeks later. Jordan was only 41 years old.
Across the border, unbeknownst to either of them, Tully would also lose the love of his life, a year later.
“Nancy and I had met back in 1991, in her hometown of Evergreen Park, Illinois. We started dating around 1994 and got married in the fall of 1995. We were soulmates, we were just madly in love with each other from the time we first met,” Tully shared. “She worked in Joliet as a finance controller for a life insurance company. She was originally diagnosed with cervical cancer staged very lightly at 1b, in 2010. We had high hopes, and the odds were really with us that we would get it taken care of, and basically eradicate the cancer. It did go fully away two or three times and she was cancer free. From 2010 to 2013, we had a lot of triumphs where we thought that we were out of the woods, and she was healthy. And then in 2014, she went back in, and the cancer had spread to several organs in her body. In February 2015, she was given the terminal diagnosis of 4b staging with no particular amount of time to live. She passed away on November 21st, 2015.”
Nancy was only 46 years old. She left behind two sons, Zander, and Tyler, now aged 12 and 16.
“We had a good marriage; I would drive her crazy and she’d drive me crazy, but it never took away the fact that we were absolutely head over heels for each other. I loved my wife deeply.”
Holly and Tully originally made contact via social media as they waded through their personal grief journeys. It was a time of searching, of reflecting. “We actually connected March of 2016 through a Facebook page for widows and widowers who are grieving,” said Tully.
“I started looking on Facebook to find grief support groups and I found one, it was a group that was designed for widows and widowers,” Holly added, “and it just so happened that Tully was in that same group. I was making posts about my journey and the things that were going on with me and he saw me, and I saw him, and we started communicating. I saw a post that he had written about the fact that he had to go to two of his really good friends’ funerals and he was really sad because he had just lost Nancy eight months before, and he was already having to go back to funerals. He had made some really kind comments on my posts, so I just sent him a private message and basically just said to him, ‘You know, nobody’s gonna expect you, after losing Nancy, to be at all of these funerals.’ And from there we just started having a conversation that went into talking on the phone; we probably talked on the phone for about three or four months. And then… he has a home in Nashville, and I was in Charlotte at the time, and he was going to a music convention in Nashville, and he invited me to drive over to meet him. We had been talking on the phone and texting back and forth for a good four months, so I thought it was a good idea. We had a fantastic week there in Nashville.”
Eventually, the relationship deepened into a beautiful, blended family, based in suburban Chicago. The couple spent the rest of the year trying to figure out the best way to merge their two families together. The first thing that they needed to decide was where they wanted to live their lives and build their home. Did they want to move to Tennessee or to North Carolina, or did they want to move to big city Chicago? In the end, they decided to focus on what was best for their boys. “They had good school districts up here in Chicago,” said Tully. “So, Holly moved up [north] in March or April of 2017.”
When they met, Holly was already working on something big, something highly personal. Where can people who have suffered terrible loss go to find solace, to locate the support that they need during what is undeniably the worst time in their life? Holly reflected on her own personal experience and journey and wanted to create an answer, a solution. And Grief Anonymous was born.
“It was my search for grief support, [for] any kind of overarching website that was going to send me to the locally based resources that I needed. There’s just so much out there that I couldn’t find, and I needed help. Basically, I created Grief Anonymous synonymous with the other anonymous programs. We have a step program. I met Tully while I was working on the concept. I founded Grief Anonymous on July 1st, 2016.”
Just six months later, there were millions of page views and hundreds of thousands of online members. Grief is a universal feeling and has a powerful ability to unite. “[Our goal is that] people will be able to connect quickly with a grieving community and know that they are not alone, and be able to be helped sooner,” said Holly. Everything they do for grieving people is free, including a resource network that is being built online. On a larger scale, Grief Anonymous even promotes the study of grief at the academic and medical levels.
Discovering the New in the Old
The road to restoring The Launching Pad was not an easy one. Holly and Tully cashed out 401Ks and relied on their life savings to buy the dilapidated property that came with the Giant. What was estimated to be a six-month renovation project dragged on for a full year. Both owners were committed and earned sweat equity the old-fashioned way. About 5000 hours of labor between the two of them were required during that period. Tully explained, “Well, collectively, Holly and I probably did, I’m going to say, conservatively, 75-80% of the work. I had hired two friends of mine who were kind of Jack of all trades, a little electrical, plumbing, tile work, things like that. So, with the items that I was not well versed at, obviously doing tile and things like that, I would have them come in. But adding up all the hours… and at one point I think there was a stretch where Holly and I were [around] 115 hours a week, every week, for three months.”
Even with all of their labor, the renovations cost far more than anticipated. And the new owners wanted to be intentional about the way that they opened the eatery. They were committed to supporting their new home of Wilmington. They wanted to bring life to a once much-loved eatery and to create relationships with their fellow business owners.
“It was never our goal to come into town and put everybody out of business,” Holly said. “We kind of stepped lightly and tried to create a very unique menu that would showcase what the area is known for, which is the Chicago dog and the beef sandwich. I pulled up some of my southern stuff.”
Besides the total restaurant overhaul, numerous other projects had to happen too. There is also an Americana Museum on-site, a Route 66 Welcome Center, and a delightful gift shop.
Of course, The Launching Pad couldn’t get a facelift without showing some love to its famous guardian, the Gemini Giant, but there were numerous issues with the fiberglass man himself, including some worn off paint, cracked feet, and problems with the bolts securing his helmet. This investment turned out to be much larger than they had ever expected.
“He was erected in ‘65, the giant was only painted one time during this whole period of time, back in 1995 by a local painter. The helmet that sits on top of Gemini’s head, it has two bolts on the front of the helmet and two bolts in the back of the helmet that bolt into his neck to hold the helmet on. The two bolts in the back of the helmet were missing, the one bolt in the front of the helmet was missing. There was only one bolt that was only halfway in holding the entire helmet on. About 20 years ago, some little kid had kicked a football up into the helmet of the giant and that football lodged between his collarbone and underneath the helmet. So really, that football was preventing the helmet from spinning around and covering his face. So, half a bolt and a football [were] all that was holding him,” sighed Tully.
“We had a local [painter] that I’ve known for 35 years, come out over the summer and donate about six weeks of his time. We had a local rental company [provide] us with a crane for free, and Sherwin-Williams helped us out with some paint, and we basically got him all done. He’s not actually 100% to our liking, we had some issues with the paint. Nobody’s ever pointed it out to us, but he’s really a much darker green. What happened is that the paint they were painting with was flashing and wasn’t staying on the fiberglass correctly and Sherwin-Williams finally determined that the only way to get it to stay on properly and stay that green metallic [color] is to use an actual power sprayer.” But to most, the shade of green is unnoticeable, and visitors are grateful to have an opportunity to visit old Gemini in his spruced-up form.
In June 2018, the couple put some lights at the base of the giant and had an official lighting ceremony that pulled a crowd from Wilmington and beyond. Now, motorists traveling down East Baltimore Street at night are sure to get a view of the fiberglass spaceman in the illuminated glow of the lights.
“If it’s two in the morning and you’re from Germany, you’re going to see this spaceman all lit up,” said Tully. “And Holly came up with an idea, she wanted to put glitter in his pupils, like a see-through glitter. [His] pupils actually glow. When that light hits it at night, it’s quite the sight to see, because we have lit neon inside the helmet, lighting his face up, and when it hits that glitter and the glowing effect, it’s really, really neat. It’s lit just perfectly, there’s no shadowing, it doesn’t bleed into the street. You just come around the curve at night and there’s this beautiful spaceman glowing on the side of the road.”
Now how Route 66 is that?
In the end, perhaps the real serendipity comes from the magic of the Gemini Giant and Holly and Tully finding each other. For by doing so, the union has fostered a fresh sense of community, an impetus for all three of them, and has allowed for the building of a new connection, a connection to Route 66 and to a shared purpose of protecting an important piece of history that seemed—for a moment—lost in time. Illinois’ stretch of Route 66 is flying high these days with Tully Garrett and Holly Barker firmly playing an active role, and from Gemini’s 30-foot vantage point, the sky is clear for take-off.