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Keeping the Legacy of Route 66 Alive in Springfield

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(Photo: Randy Stewart)
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When the U.S. government approved the federal highway system in 1926, two businessmen—Cyrus Avery of Tulsa and John T. Woodruff of Springfield—successfully lobbied Washington for a paved highway that not only ran straight through from Chicago to Los Angeles, but actually through the main streets of towns and communities along the way.  Avery, Woodruff and their associates also lobbied hard for a distinctive numerical designation for what would come to be called “the Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road.” Thus, Route 66 was born.  It seemed like the double-digit number “66” would be easy for people to remember...well, it was.

Springfield’s John Woodruff was the first president of the U.S. Highway 66 Association, which was formed to promote the end-to-end paving of the highway (which was finally accomplished in 1938), to promote usage of the road, and to serve as a voice for the businesses located along U.S. 66. Its heyday as a cultural phenomenon was the post-WWII period.  But in 1956 President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act into law, and Route 66 began to be bypassed all along its Chicago-to-California route by major multi-lane interstate highways like I-55, I-44 and I-40.

As Route 66 passed through the heart of the western United States, past innumerable iconic and archetypal roadside diners, gas stations, motels and other scenes, it developed a romance and lore that sustain it to this day. While Highway 66 as an entity no longer literally exists, there are state associations and historical societies all along the old route that are determined to keep its memory alive. We’ll take a look at some local efforts in this report.

Lifelong Springfieldian Tommy Pike is the current President of the Route 66 Association of Missouri, and is a walking, talking encyclopedia of Mother Road lore and history.  He notes that “the last section (of old U.S. 66) that was de-commissioned was in 1988, when they de-commissioned Hooker Cut up by Waynesville.  Well, in 1990 I contacted my State Representative, and another fella contacted his in the Waynesville area, and they co-sponsored a bill to make Route 66 in the state of Missouri a Historic Route. And we were the only state at the time that had that.”  The state Route 66 Association paid Missouri Department of Transportation to put up “Historic Route 66” signs.

“The first sign was installed July 3rd, 1991 at the southeast corner of Kearney (Street) and Glenstone (Avenue),” says Tommy Pike.  “And in 2004 the Association and MODOT spearheaded making it a State Scenic Byway. It took us about two years to get that done.”

Tommy Pike spends a lot of time trying to convince cities and towns along old 66 to get on the bandwagon. Why?  “It is an economic development tool,” he says. “If the communities would promote (Route 66), if they would embrace it in their area, you know, it brings tourism and everything into the area—and those people spend money.”

The significance of Route 66 is certainly not lost on John Sellars, Director of the History Museum for Springfield/Greene County.  He says, “66 was so iconic and so identified with Americana in the middle of the 20th century, at a time when the mindset of people was that the potential was limitless. Everything was just on the move and on the go, and it would always be better. So people harkened back to that.”

The History Museum is currently working on converting the second floor of the Barth’s building, next door to their headquarters in the Fox Theatre, into a Route 66 Museum with artifacts, video displays and more.  Sellars hopes the first phase of the museum project will be ready by late fall of 2015—“if everything goes well and we’re able to get our design and construction done. If not, we’ll open early in the spring. We want to make sure it’s right, make sure everything’s just the way we want it.”  They’ve been working on this permanent 66 exhibit for several years.

Meanwhile in Meyer Library on the Missouri State University campus, the Archives and Special Collections department has joined a National Park Service/Route 66 Archives and Research Collaborative, according to Associate Professor David Richards. “We wanted to focus on oral histories that documented the African-American experience in Springfield.” They conducted interviews specifically with gathering Route 66 history in mind. “It was basically an oral history project on Route 66 and the African-American and minority experience.”  Dean of Library and Information Services Tom Peters says he’d like the project “become a research center for Route 66.  So we’re not really a museum or an exhibit—what we envision is more of an archive and research center.”

Those are just some of the local efforts to keep the memory of the Mother Road alive.

Beginning August 14, Springfield will host its annual Birthplace of Route 66 Festival. In addition to a parade and car and motorcycle show, authors, artists, collectors and associations affiliated with Route 66 will be on hand to offer displays with information about their products and services.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning "Arts News." Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's "Ozzie Award" in 2006.
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