14 Apr Henry’s Hot Dogs, Cicero, Illinois
In 2012, my husband Richard and I set off to explore the first section of Route 66 from Chicago, Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri and what a delight it was! The actual starting point is in the heart of downtown Chicago right on Lake Michigan. No guidebooks told us the plaque NOT next to the lake, so we circled around looking for it and finally gave up! It was a gloomy, rainy day – not my favorite light for shooting roadside signs – I prefer blue sky and shadows), but we were on Route 66 and we were going to make the best of it! As we made our way out of downtown Chicago, the first “city” you come to is Cicero. The rain let up enough for us to be rewarded with an amazing sight: Henry’s Hot Dogs neon sign glowing in all it’s glory! A giant hot dog with fries on top of the bun and the words “It’s a meal in itself”! I thought I had died and gone to heaven! This Route 66 adventure was off to a great start!
According to legend “this classic Chicago-land hot dog stand was started in the 1950’s by a guy whose surname was Henry. He originally started with a hot dog wagon on Austin just north of Ogden. When Route 66 became famous, he moved to this location where it stills stands today.” We wish Henry’s continued success and bravo for the wonderful sign!
A few years ago, I met a woman at The Woodstock Writers Festival who grew up going to Henry’s! She wrote up her memories of it and here’s her story:
Memories of Henry’s Hot Dogs
A true story, by Lisa Cottrell
I remember going to Henry’s Hot Dogs as a kid. It was a specific window of time and circumstance, and seeing Mary Anne Erickson’s painting of the famous Henry’s sign brought the memories flooding back.
It was the summer of 1980 and I was between sixth and seventh grade. It was the only summer that I got a pool pass, which was like a medal to be sewn to your bathing suit, a shiny badge proving that you belonged. What could feel better to a 12 year old girl? Sadly, by the year after that, there was no way I would be seen in the public arena in a bathing suit. I did not have the required boobs, or more to the point, the self-esteem, by then. I spent that summer’s mornings sleeping in, putting on makeup, and smoking; the afternoons were for watching all three ABC one-hour soap operas. And the summer before that, my first in Cicero, was spent reading enough books to win the bookmobile contest, including but not limited to all of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. But for the summer of 1980, days at the pool followed by hot dogs at Henry’s were the highlight!
I can’t believe that our parents would let us walk to the pool by ourselves. Not that the town of Cicero was so bad back then, and it was the daytime, but walking through the long viaduct under the Burlington Northern railroad yard was downright scary, and the only way to get there. The fact that my company was Kathy K., probably the only girl in our school scrawnier than me, was little comfort. Then again, it let me feel tougher, which I know by now I have always liked.
The viaduct was long, dark, damp, and dripping. There were lights, not all of which were ever working at the same time. There was a dark, narrow doorway coming from a stairwell about halfway through. It seemed to take forever to walk through, but you couldn’t run either. That would have been even scarier.
The pool itself was uneventful. The big treat was on the way back: Henry’s. It was the first restaurant I ever ate in without adults. This was a classic diner style joint, tiny but welcoming, it was as if your friendly old grandma and grandpa had a hot dog stand. It cost $1.03 for a hot dog and fries. I’m embarrassed to admit I used to eat my hot dogs with ketchup only, but it’s part of the memory because Henry’s ketchup had a little extra “zing” compared to the usual formula. I didn’t even mind if some got on my fries, which were loaded into the hot dog and surrounding it in the white paper lining the plastic basket. The fries were crispy and hot, salty and delicious. Henry’s also had my favorite pop—RC, perfect for washing everything down if you had the extra change. We would eat really fast, because we were always so hungry after the pool, and also still damp and freezing in the air conditioning. The walk home always felt easier.
Oil on canvas, 40×40″