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by Mel Fenson

America’s favorite highway, advertised as “The Main Street of America” by the US Highway 66 Association, and called the “Mother Road” in Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” takes you from Illinois through the American heartland of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, then heads into the southwest through New Mexico and Arizona, and finally ends up in California. It runs from Chicago through St. Louis, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff and other towns and cities across the USA - all the way to Los Angeles.

Longmont’s Museum and Cultural Center is currently exhibiting memories of this venerable old road through America’s heartland. The exhibit runs through March 9, 2008. St. Louis photographer Shellee Graham took a journey along Route 66 during the 1990s and photographed the“neglected icons of a time gone by” - forgotten road stops along the way: neon-lit motels, friendly local diners and cafes, and old boarded-up gas stations, and she visited a few local establishments still run by die-hard local residents, who remember the glory days of old Route 66. The exhibit, Return to Route 66 was developed and is toured by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services of Kansas City, Missouri. It is supplemented with classic cars and historic gas station memorabilia from local collectors.

The highway was immortalized in the 1946 song, “Get your kicks on Route 66,”
a popular rhythm and blues standard composed by American songwriter, Bobby Troup. It was first recorded in the same year by Nat King Cole and was subsequently recorded by many artists including Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones. Troup conceived the idea for the song while driving west from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles. The lyrics name many of the cities the highway passed through and recalls the romance and freedom of automobile travel in in days gone by.

Memories of Route 66 bring back recollections of cruising across country in the family car - maybe a 50’s model Chevrolet, Ford, Mercury or Cadillac, and passing through small towns and maybe stopping at a local drive-in or cafe for a hamburger and a shake and a conversation with the locals. Neon signs abounded, beckoning travelers to hundreds of small motels and cafes along the way. Service stations sold gasoline for as cheap as 25 cents a gallon. And you didn’t want to forget that water bag for trips across the western desert country. You just hung it on the front bumper to keep the water cold. The road twisted and turned as you traveled across the country - “seeing the USA in your Chevrolet” or in your “Merry Oldsmobile,” as advertising jingles of the fifties resounded. Times somehow seemed simpler in those days. Shellee Graham says about 85% of the old Route 66 can still be traveled. She shot most of the photos for this exhibit when she traveled across country to Los Angeles in 1991 from her hometown in Bridgetown, Missouri. Her photos appear in her Post Card Book, “ Return to Route 66.”

One of the original federal routes, US 66 was established in 1926 as one of the original US Highways. Much of the early highway, like all the other early highways, was gravel or graded dirt. It became the first highway to be completely paved in 1938. It extended across the American landscape for 2,448 miles. It became a major road for farm migrants from Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, who were heading west for agricultural jobs in California, during the Dust Bowl of the1930s. Route 66 helped create the rise of mom-and-pop businesses in the towns and cities it passed through.

During World War II, more migration west occurred because of war-related industries in California. Route 66, already popular and fully paved, became one of the main routes west.

In the 1950s, Route 66 became the main highway for vacationers heading to Los Angeles. The road passed through the Painted Desert and near the Grand Canyon. Meteor Crater in Arizona was another popular stop. This sharp rise in tourism in turn gave rise to curious roadside attractions, such as teepee-shaped motels, frozen custard stands, Indian curio shops, and reptile farms. Other enterprising businesses also took advantage of the traffic passing by on Route 66. Meramec Caverns near St. Louis began advertising on barns, billing itself as the "Jesse James hideout". The increasing traffic brought about the birth of the fast-food industry with establishments such as Red's Giant Hamburgs in Springfield, Missouri, site of the first drive-through restaurant, and the first McDonald's in San Bernardino, California. Every business along the way wanted to get into the action with their own promotions. The Big Texan advertised a free 72-ounce steak dinner to anyone who could eat the whole thing in an hour.

During its nearly 60-year existence, Route 66 was under constant change, as highway engineering became more sophisticated and engineers constantly sought more direct routes between towns and cities. Some states widened portions of the highway to four lanes to accommodate the increasing automobile traffic.

The beginning of the end for Route 66 came in 1956 with the signing of the Interstate Highway Act by President Dwight Eisenhower. As a general in the European theater during World War II, Eisenhower was impressed by Germany's high-speed roadways. He envisioned a similar system of high speed roads for the US. to facilitate the growing US highway traffic and make it easier to mobilize troops in the event of a national emergency.

Finally, with decertification of the highway by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, US 66 was officially removed from the United States Highway System on June 27, 1985, after it was decided the route was no longer relevant because it had been replaced by the Interstate Highway System.

Route 66 attracted international attention when in 2008, The World Monuments Fund named it to its World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

As the popularity and mythical status of Route 66 has continued to gain national attention, demands have begun to mount to improve its signage, return it to road atlases and revive its status as a highway and it is now beginning to appear on highway maps as a National Scenic Byway with its establishment as a National Scenic Byway in Illinois, Arizona and New Mexico and with that status pending approval in Oklahoma and Missouri.

So, you can still, "Get your Kicks on Route 66," and see the USA. But sorry, there's no more 25-cent gasoline along the way.