The Bills Shea

After a day of frustration and a few choice four letter words directed mostly at the state of Illinois and their inability to effectively mark Rt. 66 for easier traversal, we had almost given up on stopping at anything but Cozy Dog on our way back to the campsite.

If we had given up so easily, we would’ve missed what is probably the most well-known, and most visited, stops in Illinois. Luckily, we finally re-connected with the official Rt. 66 just in time to stumble upon Shea’s.

Since it is no longer a working gas station, and there are innumerable pieces of memorabilia scattered throughout the front, back and edges of the property, it’s hard to recognize – unless you’ve heard about it (and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands have!)

When we left the car, we were met by the king of this clutter castle, 90-year-old Bill Shea who took our $2 (each) and slowly shuffled with us the 30 feet to the front of the second (non-original building.) Once we got there, we learned the story. Not just the origin of monolith to miscellany, but the story of Bill and his family of Bills.

He began by explaining that 50 years ago, a young man visited the family’s truck cab company and needed a truck top for his father. Unfortunately, the fella didn’t have money, and offered an antique gas pump in exchange. Bill considered it for a moment and told him that if he paints the pump to his specifications, he would make the trade, and that became the first piece of the collection.

The collection is filled with absolute randomness. There are old wringer washers, war memorabilia and classic console televisions mixed in with the Rt. 66 history. A few of the items have been donated by friends and visitors, but the majority has been accumulated by the Shea family. I asked Bill’s son, Bill, to estimate the number and value of the items on site, and he was simply unable to do so, and I can’t say I’m surprised.

It’s as if Bill was one step from being featured on A&E’s Hoarders, but someone stepped in and said, what if we just open a museum, charge people to enter and we’ll call him eccentric. The place is pretty well organized, but it’s a true hodgepodge, with some items making you shake your head and ask “why?” But the answer is “why not?” If it’s worth collecting one interesting, historic or shiny object, why not collect them all?

But, this collection more importantly gives us a chance to meet and perhaps understand Bill Shea and his doting son a little better.

Bill Sr. is one of the last living members of the D-Day invasion in Normandy. His boots are on display with a small and simple handwritten sign.

He survived that day when many did not (over 6,000 Americans died or were wounded on the beaches), he returned home and became a proud husband, loyal Texaco employee, and doting father and then grandfather and great grandfather. The story of the Shea museum is the story of the the Shea family, more than simply pictures.

Bill Sr. is a war hero, a member of that “Greatest Generation” described by Tom Brokaw, someone to look up to and I think this museum is his way of connecting visitors with a time of prosperity that has never been seen by any other generation in our country’s history. Each piece represents a moment in his memory that has a story, that has a meaning that’s more important than any visitor can comprehend.

His world-renowned museum is interesting, but I wish we had more time to talk and hear his stories. Maybe someday someone will document this man’s life and we’ll all read it as a bestseller.

Definitely worth a road trip to see this, and meet the Shea family.