Riding Route 66 Through the USA and History
Historic Route 66 recalls the golden era of automobile travel. Small towns unfolded as families took to the highway. Motels, and attractions popped up along the sides of the road. Today major highways have supplanted much of the route, but more and more of the towns time left behind are burnishing their road-history for visitors.
OklahomaSoon after we started it became apparent that there was no way to see everything. It could take us half a day just to see one town. We began to pick and choose, and to rely on serendipity. We got off the interstate in Miami (pronounced My-AM-a) because there was reputed to be an interesting restored theater with a café somewhere. We never found the café described in the book but we did find great barbeque, and a true gem of a restored theater. The Coleman, all gilt and plush, opened six months before the 1929 Depression devastated the economy of the country. As the fortune of the country spiraled down, so did the theater. Today it is a fully restored beautiful example of what a community can do to save its priceless history. From the city government supporting it with free utilities to the people of the community providing in-kind donations of labor, carpentry, electrical services, painting and fund raising.. Dedicated volunteers provide fascinating tours of history of the theater, the efforts to rebuild from a derelict hulk, and charming insights including why one of the statues by the grand staircase has been polished by hundreds of rubs.
As we motored from Vinita to Tulsa we experienced a Route 66 more like its old self, with small towns, and roadside attractions. Tiny Foyil is certainly an example. We stopped to admire Ed Galloway’s native American inspired folk art fantasy, Totem Pole Park. No one is certain why he created these brightly colored concrete structures, including the 90-foot tall totem pole, but it is a wonderful example of the tradition of folk art.
After Galloway’s death, the family donated the park to the historical society that has taken over its preservation. Equally impressive, although less celebrated, is his Fiddle House, built to house his numerous and unique handmade fiddles.
The famous Blue Whale of Catoosa is a true roadside attraction and one of those way better than expected experiences. Like a star of the road, the Blue Whale has become a beloved and restored relic. Ironically, though, it was actually opened in early 1970s by Hugh Davis. The spring-fed swimming hole and Blue Whale diving platform became a local favorite, and tourist destination. Like other roadside attractions, this one fell into disrepair, but its salvation came from volunteers and from the Hampton Inn’s program to restore these heritage sites.
In Davenport, Gar Wooly’s offers nostalgia, and old style fountain food. A former gas station is now a flower shop. An old Texaco station sits with old cars both restored and not restored.
Since by now we had developed themes within our trip, we stopped in Chandler to admire the old cottage-style Phillips 66 station. Then, in Arcadia, while others were stopping to see the landmark 1898 Round Barn, we were stopped in our tracks by a futuristic gas station with a giant soda bottle and an impossibly large cantilever canopy. Hi-tech pumps, a collection of about 500 kinds of soda, and soaring roof-line make this gas station a new Route 66 attraction.
TexasAlthough there was much more to see, it was time to roll into Texas. And the first town in Texas we visited was... Irish. Shamrock was established by an Irish sheep rancher. And it’s Irish enough to hold an annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration. For those not ready to make the trip to Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone, you don’t have to go any further than Shamrock. In 1959 a piece of world famous Stone from Cork County, Ireland was brought to Shamrock by the Chamber of Commerce. It’s mounted in Elmore Park.
The town also has celebrity status for the historic and eye-catching U-Drop Inn & Conoco Station. Built in 1936 it has served travelers for many years. In 2003-2004 it was taken over and restored to its former glory by the city of Shamrock with a grant from the Texas Department of Transportation. Although no longer a functioning restaurant visitors can see its original art-deco beauty as they visit the Shamrock Chamber of Commerce and visitors bureau. The old gasoline pumps are still outside with the Conoco sign. Next along the nostalgia trail is McLean, sitting about two hours from the midpoint of Route 66. The main streets are quiet, even during the day during the week. Route 66 tourists and oddities collectors are often aware of the Devil’s Rope Museum. There are certainly very few places dedicated to the study of barbed wire but even if you aren’t an afficionado of thorny metal twine, you’ll still be amazed at the variety of barbed wire and its fascinating history. For good reason, it was called “the wire that won the west.”
Less well-known, the McLean/Alanreed Area Museum is housed in two of the original town buildings built 1904 and 1910. The volunteer docent is knowledgeable and eager to share the history of their town. The history of the town also includes a World War II Prisoner of War camp. A little known fact is that this country “hosted” about 425,000 captured Axis troops in more than 500 camps. The McLean camp held German POWs from 1943 until it closed in 1945. The museum exhibit contains camp artifacts, photographs, and two huge books of all the information known about the McLean camp. Little remains of the McLean Permanent Alien Internment Camp but there’s a historical marker on the SW corner of the old camp.
One of the clear Route 66 highlights is the restored Phillips 66 gas station. Built in the 1920s, it was one of the tiny, cottage-style stations with no garage, just two ancient gas pumps outside painted a lively orange. Next to it is a vintage gasoline tanker truck painted the same lively orange. Renovated back to its original look, it has the vintage Phillips 66 logos. The site is owned and maintained by the Texas Old Route 66 Association. A cute gas station may seem to be an oxymoron, but these stations are truly charming, speaking to a different age and style.
Nearby Alanreed has just about disappeared. Devotees of the Mother Road make the trip to see the restored service station of Bradley Kiser on one of the incarnations of Route 66. This 66 Super Service Station dates back to the 1930s. A plaque reads “Built by Bradley Kiser 1930" then in downtown Allanreed.” Moving the station didn’t help. The town and the alignments all ended up living in the mists of Route 66 history.
The folks who run the tourist information centers across the country are an undertapped travel resource. When the woman at the Texas travel center heard that we had already visited Cadillac Ranch on previous trips she immediately suggested “well, what about Bug Ranch?” Bug Ranch? Sure enough, on the south side of the Conway exit (#96) or on Route 66 by the Conway Inn is... Bug Ranch. Bug as in VW Beetles.
Often called the Capital of the Panhandle, Amarillo survived the death of Route 66. Today it straddles the upstart highway I-40. It’s also an example of one of the difficulties faced by drivers seeking to follow historic Route 66 – multiple alignments. As a result, Amarillo has two different roads both with the legitimate claim to be Route 66. Amarillo Boulevard (also known as Business Route 40, and even Route 60) is one of the alignments. Actually the second incarnation of Route 66, it takes you a bit north of the rest of Amarillo which now spreads out south.
As you follow Amarillo Boulevard east, there are more and more ghost remnants, bits and pieces of the now legendary Mother Road. Defunct business with vintage cars parked out front, occasional arrows pointing to a shell of a store. But don’t give up on the road, there are oldies but goodies still open for business. The first and original Route 66 has become Sixth Avenue, which for some unknown reason most residents call Sixth Street. Never mind that the maps and all government documents, including street signs, call it Sixth Avenue. The section between Georgia and Forest Streets is listed on the National Register of Historic Districts and is a vital and fascinating area called San Jacinto known for its eclectic collection of shops, and architectural styles. Amarillo is the only major town along Route 66 in Texas. The city is worth a stop on its own -- read why in Route 66 - Amarillo
Stop in the town of Vega to see another of the original gas stations along Route 66. The tiny 1920s Magnolia Station was restored through National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program funding. The Magnolia actually operated as a gas station until 1953, but its restoration returned it to the way it looked years back. Another nonlandmark station wasn’t so fortunate – Robinson’s Route 66 Café and Club is falling into ruin – we ate our picnic lunch under its sheltering canopy.
Shortly before leaving Texas is the must-stop town of Adrian. Not only is it the true mid-point of Route 66, halfway between Chicago and Los Angeles, but the Mid Point Café has wonderful pies in a charming vintage luncheonette atmosphere. Route 66 tourists still love to visit this geo-mathematical midpoint of the Mother Road with the motto When you’re here, you’re halfway there.
Just before leaving Texas, Route 66 goes through the tumble-weed strewn town of Glenrio This is a true “modern ghost town” although there does seem to be someone living there – we definitely heard dogs barking. Supposedly a thriving town in the 1930s, today it is so empty – despite those barking dogs – that it isn’t even listed in the Texas Travel Guide we picked up at one of their travel information centers. It isn’t often people can stand smack in the middle of what was clearly a highway and practical play a game of football -- it was that empty. The tipoff was the weeds poking through the roadway.