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Local History

Route 66 Author/Historian Featured at Birthplace of Route 66 Festival

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(Photo courtesy www.susancrocekelly.com)
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The 2015 Birthplace of Route 66 Festival takes place this weekend in downtown Springfield including a parade, a car and motorcycle show, concerts at the Gillioz Theatre, and a “confab” of authors, artists, collectors and associations affiliated with Route 66, who will be set up from 10:00am to 4:00pm Saturday and Sunday August 15 and 16 at The Old Glass Place, 501 St. Louis Street.  They’ll have displays featuring information on their products and services.

One of the presenters is one-time reporter and retired public relations executive Susan Croce Kelly, author of a critically-acclaimed pictorial and verbal book on the history of “America’s Mother Road.” Her latest book is Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery. She’s also making an appearance at the Library Station, 2535 N. Kansas Expressway, tonight (Thursday Aug.13) at 7:00pm to talk about that book and what she calls “the road that runs through everyone’s life.” Susan talked with me yesterday from her home at Lake of the Ozarks, and wanted everyone attending the festival to know that “if you get too hot looking at cars or get tired looking at cars, or want to know more about 66 today or yesterday, come to the authors, artists and association building and we’ll be happy to tell you!”

Susan has spent time as a newspaper reporter both in her native St. Louis and here in Springfield.  But it was her mother who sparked her interest in Route 66. “My mom was born in Springfield, and had grown up over in Lawrence County and Dade County. And her grandfather had a farm that fronted on Route 66. And she would tell my sister and me stories about the people that went down the highway—and she saw a couple of movie stars one time, which was a big deal back in the late (19)20s and early 30s. So I was brought up on her stories of ‘the most famous road in the world’ as she called it... and I didn’t believe her until I was grown. 

“And then when I was in Springfield, that stretch of road from Halltown to Carthage, I think, is just magic. It takes you back to the 1930s and 40s with the old stone tourist courts and the old motels, all the old stores and cafes and the gas stations. But I would talk to people and they would start to tell me stories about Route 66, about the gangsters—Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde, and other nefarious doings. And they’s stop in the middle and they’d say, ‘Well, there’s still people alive... I don’t wanna tell that story!’ Of course that stayed with me!  And at the time I thought, somebody needs to write a book about this—but I’m not a good enough photographer.”

Susan later returned home to St. Louis and met a photographer, Quinta Scott—who, says Susan, “was all excited about doing a book on Route 66 because of the architecture of the buildings. And I said, ‘Well, that’s okay, but we’ve gotta talk to the people.’ And so it turned out to be a terrific combination. She would take pictures of the buildings and I’d interview the people inside and talk about their business. And so we really learned a lot from those people.

Susan Kelly’s second book, Father of Route 66, tells the story of Cyrus Avery, politician and businessman—not from Springfield, but from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Avery was involved in farm loans and real estate, did a lot of traveling in the pre-World War I days, and experienced first-hand how awful the roads were.  As early as 1906, even before the Oklahoma territory achieved statehood, says Susan, Avery joined the “Good Roads” movement.

By 1925 Avery was Oklahoma Highway Commissioner, and was named to a Federal/State joint board along with the Missouri State Highway Engineer, B.H. Piepmeier.  As Susan relates the history, “the two men got together in Springfield at the Colonial Hotel—John Woodruff’s Colonial Hotel.  So Springfield is the place where Route 66 was born, but Mr. Avery was the one who pushed it through. And I’m fascinated by it! So if anybody has some Route 66 stories or wants to know more about the history of the highway, I would love to talk to them.

And you’ll have a chance to talk with Route 66 author and historian Susan Croce Kelly, both at the Library Station Thursday night and this weekend at the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival.