Still getting our kicks on old Route 66

Keeping America's 'Mother Road' memory alive takes work

by Leigh Elmore

Various sites along Route 66 in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Americans have a love affair with the highway. Who hasn't harbored dreams of "hitting the road" for adventure and fortune? The theme is rife throughout our literature, TV shows, movies and music. And probably no one particular highway gets as much attention as old U.S. 66 – "Main Street America" or "the Mother Road" – a highway that today, alas, no longer exists except in our memories.

But for much of the 20th century, Route 66 taught Americans how to hit the road because along its 2,451 miles and the eight states that it traversed, the highway told the story of America growing up and connecting with itself – from the smallest villages to the largest cities.

From 1926 when the first stretches of Route 66 were laid down in Illinois until 1985 when it finally was decommissioned as a U.S. highway, Route 66 helped to launch Americans into a mobile age that we'll never relinquish. While most of us don't get out and drive to "where the road and sky collide" as much as we would have liked – we still like to know that we can if we want. Route 66 always kept that promise or, last resort, alive.

Today, interstate highways have supplanted most of the route of U.S. 66 (I-55 in Illinois, I-44 in Missouri to Oklahoma City, I-40 through the remainder of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California where it follows I-15 and I-10 to the Santa Monica Pier).

The Rainbow Bridge deck near Baxter Springs, KS. (photo courtesy the Route 66 Alliance)

But much of the old pavement still exists as auxiliary roads and highways, local streets and old bridges. In fact there is a very large and committed group of Route 66 enthusiasts in all of the states where the highway ran that promote preservation of old roadside attractions, and encourage tourism to the "lost" sections of pavement, as well as run websites that keep contemporary American travelers abreast of activities and news that occur along the route.

One such group is the Route 66 Alliance based in Tulsa, OK, (www.route66alliance.org). Its founders, Rick Freeland and Michael Wallis point out that it took similar associations in various states throughout the 1920s to get the route authorized by the U.S. Bureau of Highways in the first place.

The Coleman Theater in Miami, OK (photo courtesy city of Miami)

"In 1927, Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff formed the U.S. 66 Highway Association to promote the early completion and secure permanent maintenance of the highway between Chicago and Los Angeles," said Freeland.

He said the original 1927 association promoted the highway as a "linear village: what was good for one town was good for all the towns along the highway. In addition to connecting all major cities and small towns between Chicago and Santa Monica, the efforts of the association resulted in Route 66 becoming the most famous highway in the world."

John Woodruff was a businessman from Springfield, MO, a city that plays prominently in Route 66's birth. In April 1926, Woodruff brought together Avery, the oilman from Tulsa, and B.M. Piepmeier, chief engineer of the Missouri State Highway Commission, among others in Springfield. Their goal was to agree on the highway number the new route would be known as. Avery and Piepmeier suggested "66", they wanted a prominent number that would not be connected with any other road. By August, all of the other states involved signed off on the "66" moniker. A new highway was born.

The Chain of Rocks Bridge that carried Route 66 across the Mississippi River. (photo courtesy Illinois Rt. 66 Assoc.)

And it didn't take long for the highway to drift into near mythological status, maybe with a little help from John Steinbeck and his novel Grapes of Wrath. The Joad family took to the highway in their quest for salvation from the dust.

"Even with tough times, the Depression that worked its baleful consequences on the nation produced an ironic effect along Route 66. The vast migration of destitute people fleeing their former homes actually increased traffic along the highway, providing commercial opportunities to a multitude of low capital, mom-and-pop businesses," according to a National Park Service essay posted at www.nps.gov.

Vintage postcard of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. (photo courtesy Illinois Rt. 66 Assoc.)

And while World War II caused a dip in civilian traffic, the highway was vital for the movement of troops and materiel throughout the war. When the war ended, traffic increased as rationing and travel restrictions were lifted.

Automobile ownership grew dramatically over the next 10 years, with 52.1 million cars registered in 1955 (compared to the 25.8 million at the end of the war). With more cars and leisure time, families headed west on Route 66 to the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, and the beaches of Southern California.

With the heavier traffic, businesses along the highway boomed, and the image of Route 66 as a Dustbowl migration route changed to one of freedom and kicks. The bleak image of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath faded as the upbeat lyrics of Bobby Troupe's "Route 66" hit the airwaves in 1947.
The adventures of two young men seeking their kicks in the 1960s television series, "Route 66", further immortalized Route 66 as a highway of thrills.

Created by Mother Road experts Jerry McClanahan and Jim Ross. The "Here It Is!" map consists of a separate fold-out map for each Route 66 state and provides an easy to follow "through" route and simple directions to keep you on the right track as you cruise America's most famous highway. Commercial maps no longer indicate the highway.

The directions are provided in both eastbound and westbound directions. Each map is illustrated with original art by McClanahan, and text by Ross. The maps include the history of the road, tips on finding older alignments, and information pertaining to each state. This set is an absolute must to take along on your trip down Route 66. (Map is available for $13.95 at www.historic66.com/books/map-8statemaps.html)

 

Preserving the thrill

These days much of the preservation activities relating to Route 66 have been accomplished at local levels. While groups such as the Route 66 Alliance and others such as the Route 66 Association of Illinois (il66assoc.org) do much to coordinate activities among interested groups and individuals in their respective states, it's difficult to maintain continuity along the entire 2,451-mile route.

"We all have a lot of expectations about Route 66. We have ideas of what 66 should be like and how it should be preserved," said Cathie Stevanovich, president of the Illinois 66 Association.
"We all love our Mother Road miles, but the practical side of our two-lane highway love affair is if there aren't service businesses alongside it, it will once again fade away." She and many others are working to find new ways to promote businesses along the historic highway, much in the same vein as the original highway promoters.

Certainly there are local successes in preserving the route all in communities all along the original route. Many of the businesses associated with the highway "back in the day" related to keeping cars running and people bedded and fed. So, it's not uncommon to find a 1940s era gasoline station preserved as a historic monument.

The Ambler-Becker Texaco Station, Dwight, IL. (photo courtesy Illinois Rt. 66 Assoc.)

The Ambler-Becker Texaco in Dwight, IL was once a thriving service station but now serves as a Route 66 welcome center. The station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been awarded funding through the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to be restored to look like it did in the 1940s.

The Illinois Route 66 Association promotes a total of 55 sites in that state that are worth visiting on

Folk art mosaic located on College Street in Springfield, MO. (photo by Leigh Elmore)

the old highway. Farther along, the Route 66 Association of Missouri (www.missouri66.org) also has a long list of business members that it helps promote through its website and activities.

Plus, the Oklahoma Route 66 Association actively works for its hundreds of business members. While Route 66 did traverse a small corner of Kansas, it was for only 13 miles, and the lack of interest in having a state Route 66 group for Kansas seems to be due to lack of mileage.

Nevertheless, many of the landmarks associated with Route 66 are simply vestiges of the past. Witness the sign for Diamonds Restaurant at Villa Ridge, MO. The "ghost sign" reigns over the empty parking lot of what was once the largest highway restaurant in the world.

One of the ubiquitous barns painted to advertise Meramec
Caverns. (photo courtesy the Route 66 Alliance)

Even in Springfield, "birthplace" of Route 66, the Reds "Giant Burger" drive-in sign has been restored but looks lonely without a building to go with it. And, ubiquitous through the 1960s, the many Missouri barns painted red, yellow and blue to advertise Meramec Caverns near Stanton on Route 66 are literally fading with time. On the other hand, the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven Motel in Springfield (formerly the Rail Haven Motor Court) maintains a strict semblance to its 1957 self and continues to do good business at the corner of St. Louis and Glenstone.

 

A Sampling Of Route 66 Festivals

8th ANNUAL ILLINOIS Rt. RED CARPET CORRIDOR FESTIVAL
Joliet to Towanda, IL, May 2-3, 815-844-5847

• CLINTON ROUTE 66 FESTIVAL MEMORIAL WEEKEND
Clinton, OK, May 23, 580-323-2222

• BETHANY 66 FESTIVAL
Bethany, OK, May 24, 405-312-0155

• ROUTE 66 DAYS
Elk City, OK, June 4-7, 580-225-0207

ROUTE 66 SUMMERFEST
Rolla, MO, June 5-7,
www.route66summerfest.com

• ROUTE 66 BLOWOUT
Sapulpa, OK, June 6, 918-224-5709

• ROUTE 66 FESTIVAL
Edwardsville, IL June 12-13, 618-692-7538

• Blue Carpet Corridor,
Chatham to Collinsville, IL, June 13-14,
www.bluecarpetcorridor.org

• BIRTHPLACE OF ROUTE 66 FESTIVAL
Springfield, MO, Aug. 14-16,
www.facebook.com/birthplaceofroute66festival

• 14th ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL ROUTE 66 MOTHER ROAD FESTIVAL
Springfield, IL Sept. 25-27, 800-545-7300


 

Additional Resources

• Route 66 Association of Illinois - http://il66assoc.org
• Route 66 Association of Missouri - http://missouri66.org
• Kansas Historic Route 66 Assoc. - http://kshistoricroute66.com
• Oklahoma Route 66 Association - http://oklahomaroute66.com


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Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com


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