Armed with maps and books on the subject, we spent five weeks following the road on which, in a different era, America drove west. The first stretch traced the 500 miles between Chicago and Springfield, Mo., “birthplace” of the old highway. This second stretch, about 570 miles, runs from Springfield to Amarillo, Texas.
West of Springfield, old Route 66 continues to historic Carthage (bypassed by today’s I-44), seat of Jasper County since 1842. En route to the town, where little has changed in 80 years, you get your first real feel of the old road.
This stretch, Missouri’s Ghost Town Trail, includes the 1852 Yeakley Cemetery; a 1903 stone-castlelike former shoe and then casket factory in Plano; once-prosperous quaint Halltown, where the old Whitehall Mercantile, built more than a century ago, now houses an antique shop; and Paris Springs Junction. Among the earliest buildings in this town were cobblestone-faced Gay Parita Garage, new in 1926, and a Sinclair station built four years later.
The original station burned in 1955, reports current owner Gary Turner, who displays a 1929 Ford and 1948 Ford truck as well as a host of Route 66 memorabilia at the station’s carefully replicated replacement. He also runs a gift shop and “tries to be an ambassador for the old route.” When he was a child, says Turner, his family followed Route 66 to California every year to pick cherries and walnuts.
Just outside Carthage, near Kellogg Lake on Old Route 66 Blvd., is the 1927 Red Rock Court, now a small apartment complex. But when it was still a relatively new motor court, Turner told us Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow stayed in one of the units the night before they robbed a bank in Joplin.
Carthage, renowned for its elegant 1895 Romanesque courthouse, two-dozen sumptuous post–Civil War homes (there’s a self-guided driving or walking tour) and Route 66 connection, is also famous as the site of a Civil War battle on July 4, 1861. As was the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield a month later, the Battle of Carthage was a Confederate victory.
Also of interest in town are the Boots Motel, on the old road’s original alignment, and the 66 Drive-In Theatre. The Boots Motel, new in 1939 and originally called Boots Court, is the only remaining Streamline Moderne–style motor court on Route 66, says current owner Deborah Harvey. Harvey, of Decatur, Ga., a preservation consultant, and her sister Priscilla Bledsaw of Decatur, Ill., bought the decaying old motel in 2011. Thus far they have restored five of the 13 units to their 1940’s appearance — when Clark Gable and Gene Autry were among the guests.
The 66 Drive-In, where a gaudy, blinking pink and blue neon marquee once again welcomes theatergoers, opened in 1949. It closed in 1986 and was a salvage yard until it was restored and reopened in 1998, the last of the six drive-ins named for the old route still in operation.
With parking for up to 400 vehicles, the drive-in, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is open weekends, April-September. The night of our visit The Avengers was showing on the big screen, and at 8:00 p.m. cars were lined up for more than a mile waiting to get in.
The route continues to Joplin, birthplace of novelist and poet Langston Hughes, and a stretch of Route 66 is named for him. The town offers a number of attractions. We especially recommend a tour of the Candy House Chocolate Factory, of which manager Diana DeLee Maniace says, “There is no sweeter place to work.” The firm, founded 42 years ago, has been owned since 1999 by Pat and Terry Hicklin, and with a staff of 25 (40 during holiday season) produces 200 types of candies, says Maniace. Tours illustrate how many of the treats are made, among them cherry cordials, sea salt caramels and chocolate truffles. The large showroom, where candies are invitingly displayed, was filled with customers the day of our visit and receives more than 1,000 a day at holiday time, says Maniace.
We also suggest visiting elegant Grand Falls of Shoal Creek just outside town. It’s the largest waterfall in Mo., a 300-foot-wide cascade of water that plunges more than two dozen feet into a frothy pool. Willows fringe the creek, and stair-steps of colorful cream and orange chert, water-polished to a shine, can be found at the popular site.
Route 66 cuts into a tiny portion of Kan., crossing just 13.2 miles of the Sunflower State and passing through only three towns: Galena, Riverton and Baxter Springs, Kansas’ first cow town. But the region has a colorful history.
The Galena Mining and Historical Museum displays artifacts and details about the area’s once-booming zinc and lead mining. While in Galena, also stop at 4 Women on the Route, a restored Kan-O-Tex service station now home to a gift shop and snack bar (open Tuesday-Saturday). Fans of the film Cars will recognize aging “Tow Tater” (Tow Mater in the movie) parked outside.
Between Riverton and Baxter Springs, graceful Rainbow Curve Bridge, built in 1923, carried the highway across Brush Creek until the bridge was bypassed in the 1960s (cars can still drive across it). On the Historic Register since 1983, it’s the only Marsh Arch bridge remaining of the three that once spanned creeks along Route 66 in Kansas. A decade ago, the bridge — so decorated it was called “graffiti bridge” — was cleaned up, restored and painted Carrara-marble white by the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association.
Oklahoma, which claimed more miles of Route 66 than any other state — 386 — is ahead. Just past the “Entering Oklahoma” sign is a red granite marker explaining that this was Indian Territory after an 1833 treaty ceded land to 20 tribes — the Seneca, Shawnee and Miami among them. The road continues to Quapaw, named for the Quapaw Indians, removed here from Arkansas, and on to Commerce, home of Mickey Mantle (hence his nickname “the Commerce Comet”).
Miami, ahead, was the first chartered town in Indian Territory, and today at least five tribes maintain headquarters here. Some of the wealth generated in this mining town was used to build the elegant Spanish Mission–style Coleman Theater.
Executive Director Barbara Smith says brothers George and Alfred Coleman were water-well drillers and discovered lead and zinc in the area in 1905. Twenty-four years later, George built the theater, where Will Rogers, Tom Mix and his horse, Tony, and Sally Rand were among the many early performers.
The 1,100-seat theater, now on the National Register of Historic Places, has never closed, but a $7 million renovation, nearly complete, has been under way for years. Classic films are shown here several times a year, but mainly the theater offers live entertainment — ballet, light opera, organ recitals and others, says Smith.
West of Miami is one of the earliest stretches of Route 66 (East 130 Road), which can be followed for about three miles to Afton. The 9-foot-wide lane, now mostly covered with chipped asphalt, includes a gravel shoulder that allowed cars to pass. It’s a bumpy ride, but this so-called sidewalk highway provides a sense of what travel in the 1920s in a Model T must have been like.
For the most part, today’s I-44 to Oklahoma City, then I-40 on to Texas follow the old highway’s route, which winds back and forth across newer roads, sometimes diverging to pass through the string of historic towns. They include Vinita, White Oak and Chelsea, site of Oklahoma’s first oil well and the old Pryor Creek Bridge, which was built in 1926 and carried the old route until 1932. The old bridge, on the National Register since 2006, is still drivable.
Ahead are Bushyhea; as well as Foyil, which offers a 90-foot totem pole four miles east of 66 on Highway 28A; and Sequoyah and Claremore, where at the turn of the 20th century folks came for the radium baths. Now they come for the J.M. Davis Gun Museum and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, a complex that opened in 1938 and is so exquisitely done it’s worthy of a president. Rogers, his wife, Betty, and three of their children are buried here. A dozen miles north of Claremore at Oologah is the former 60,000-acre Dog Iron Ranch, where Rogers grew up; his home can be toured.
At Catoosa you may be surprised to see — in a grassy valley at the edge of a swimming hole — the great Blue Whale. The 80-foot-long concrete-and-steel behemoth was created in 1970-72. It quickly became a popular roadside attraction, and swimming and picnicking around it continued until it closed in 1988. Swimming is still not allowed, but 10 years ago Hampton Inn, as part of their Land Marks program, funded a restoration of the grinning cetacean, restrooms, fence and grounds.
Route 66 winds through Tulsa (go to stg.trailerlife.com for the Web Exclusive attraction information) and on through Sapulpa to Kellyville, where a 10-mile stretch of original road veers off the late 1950’s alignment we had been following. We risked the original road, two tree-shrouded lanes of potholed concrete — and don’t recommend it, as it netted us a broken spring on the fifth-wheel.
Ahead, the original road angles through tiny Depew, where Doug Tuttle and his wife, Mylora, volunteers with Friends of Depew, were stenciling two dozen “Route 66” signs in white on the pavement. Back on the later alignment, continue through Stroud, Davenport, Chandler and across I-44 to Arcadia, where cherry-hued Round Barn, built by William Odor in 1898, is worth a stop. On its centennial, the barn, 43 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter and now a gift shop, was donated to the Arcadia Historical Society, a placard reads, by “the seven children of Frank and Katie Vrang.”
Following the interstate through Oklahoma City can be tricky, due to frequent roadwork, and in past years we’ve become lost several times. But excellent signage makes following old Route 66 easy.
To the west is Yukon, home of country singer Garth Brooks. Before the town was founded, the old Chisholm Trail, used by cattle drovers in the 1870s and ’80s, came through town. Today a restored boxcar and caboose at Third and Main houses Yukon’s Best Railroad Museum, which includes a Route 66 exhibit.
Ahead, is El Reno, “Crossroads of America,” a town of murals that was chartered in 1889. West of El Reno, the 1933 alignment (replete with the treacherous curbs used on many early highways) follows U.S. 270 for seven miles, crossing the intriguing “Pony Bridge” (officially the William H. Murray Bridge) over the South Canadian River. The 3,944-foot-long bridge, featured in the 1940 film Grapes of Wrath, includes 38 pairs of steel trusses.
There are many museums to the historic highway along its 2,448 miles, but among the best is the newly renovated Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton. The 10,000-square-foot museum’s eight galleries tell the story of Route 66 by decade, now with many interactive exhibits, as well as hundreds of photos, artifacts and more.
The old road loops back and forth across I-40 half a dozen times before reaching Elk City, home to the National Route 66 and Transportation Museum, comprised of an Old Town Museum, Farm and Ranch Museum and Route 66 Museum, where a 15-minute film tells the story of the historic road.
Last stop in Okla. is Texola, now a near-ghost town with just a handful of residents. The lonely burg, so unkindly treated by time, has seen change other than its shrinking size: It was originally called Texokla, then Texola and then Texoma, before an election was held and Texola was chosen.
A wall on the Last Stop Bar at the west end of town displays a sign reading, “There’s no other place like this place anywhere near this place. So this must be the place.” A red granite marker explains that in 1952 a ceremony was held here (and in the other states Route 66 crossed) rededicating it as the Will Rogers Highway. Just ahead is the Texas state line.
By the time you reach the Texas Panhandle, crossed by 182 miles of Route 66, green fields and hogs have long since given way to open range and a scattering of cattle. Grain elevators are farther apart (to eventually disappear altogether), and the sweet farm smell is gone. Here, where the dry ground is trenched with gulches and ragged arroyos, you are unmistakably in the West.
One of the finest structures anywhere along the Mother Road is the 1936 Art Deco Conoco Tower and U Drop Inn Café and Gift Shop (at 66 and Route 83) in Shamrock. Originally a service station and later a Greyhound bus stop, the building, of green and cream-colored tile and cream-hued stucco, has been beautifully restored and is now home to the Shamrock Chamber of Commerce and a gift shop. It was designated a Texas Historical Landmark in 1994 and made a cameo appearance in the film Cars.
Ahead at McLean, in the former Sears Marie Foundations factory (for which McLean was nicknamed “the Uplift Town”), is a “Tribute to Barbed Wire,” the Devil’s Rope Museum and Route 66 Museum. A large cube and two 3-foot-diameter balls of rusted barbed wire welcome visitors to this “largest barbed wire museum in the world.”
Seeing the famous “leaning tower” in the tiny town of Groom for the first time years ago from I-40, we did a double take. We later learned that it had been intentionally built this way — two legs in the ground, two in the air — looking like it’s about to topple over. Originally a water tower, it was moved here as an attention-getter for Tower Truck Stop and Restaurant, but the building (formerly Britten Truck Stop, hence the name on the tank) burned in the late 1990s.
From Groom we drove west into the sunset, the sky a tapestry of peach, gray, silver and pale turquoise, until the color, as if on a dimmer switch, faded slowly to night. An hour later Amarillo appeared on the horizon, its distant yellow lights looking like handfuls of gold beads tossed on an obsidian beach. We knew this was the end of another part of our journey, yet the next day would be the beginning of the next.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Missouri Route 66 Association
Oklahoma Route 66 Association
Old Route 66 Association of Texas