I guess I'm a little late to the Route 66 party. Many others have discovered the lure of The Mother Road and have traveled it from one end to the other many times....something I have yet to do.
Does this make me a "newbie"? Well you decide after reading what took me a half century to learn.
A few years back when I was producing the TV series RV USA TV, I decided to do a story on the history of my home town of Joplin, Missouri, and feature Route 66. That's when I realized that I was a "Child of the Mother Road" and that Route 66 had played a huge part in my life.
In April of 1946, my mother and father were enroute to California on their honeymoon. My dad had recently returned from WWII and had been dating my mother, whom he met while visiting friends in New Mexico. They were married at Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul Illinois, and headed for California on Route 66, sleeping in the desert to save money. Mom said I was born nine months later!
After their visit in California, they returned to Missouri where my grandfather was the president of the Empire District Electric Company, based in Joplin, MO, one block from Route 66. Dad took a drafting job and his office was located in Riverton, Kansas and commuted to work and back daily on Route 66. I was born at St. Johns Hospital in Joplin on December 7th., 1946 (the same year singer/songwriter Bobby Troupe wrote "Get your Kicks on Route 66").
As a young child, I remember well the family vacations taken to my mom's home near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and the many stops to visit Route 66 attractions (such as indian trading posts), and those attractions that survived would years later become known as Route "icons".
Back in Joplin, my brother and I spent our summers at the company cabin on the Spring River, located near the Empire power plant in Riverton Kansas on Route 66. At age 15, my dad taught me how to drive his old army surplus Willys jeep (aka "Sarge" from the movie "Cars"), and in time I was allowed to make solo trips to the Eisler Brothers store for groceries. Traffic was very light on the Route as the new Interstate 44 had recently opened and every community in the region (Carthage, Carterville, Webb City, Joplin, Galena, Riverton, Baxter Springs and Miami (OK)) were economically suffering from the loss of Route 66 travelers. I guess I was too busy growing up to notice.
My aunt Jane married Art Christman, grandson of one of the four original Christman brothers (of the original Christman Brothers Dry Goods store in Carthage), and they operated Christman's Department store throughout the 40's and 50's. The store was located on Joplin's downtown Route 66 corridor, and it still reminds me of the movie "A Christmas Story". In the late 50's, Christman's became a Macy's, later a Hauseman's and is today a loft-style apartment building.
In short order I had my drivers license and a whole new world opened up for me. I was a sophomore in High School and every weekend I cruised my 1952 Chevy through every drive-in and diner along west 7th. St. (old 66), and often took my girlfriend to the drive-in movies...all located on Route 66. There was the Tri-State on west 7th., the Webb City Drive-in (now a Walmart) and the Route 66 Drive-in in Carthage. I started dating a girl that lived in Carthage, so we would usually spend our time there, often spending hours at "Boots"....(the drive-in, NOT the motel) which was across the street).
It was at the age of 16 that I lost my dad suddenly to a stroke. He was buried at the Mount Hope cemetery in Webb City (overlooking old Route 66). I think that was when I had to grow-up fast. My mom had been working at Newman's department store (also on 66), and my life was about to go through some changes.
A year later, mom met a man from Tulsa and remarried. She sold my childhood home and moved to Tulsa where I attended my senior year at Edison high school. It was in Tulsa in 1966 that I met Barbara Smith, a student at Central High School located downtown near old 66) on a double blind date ( she was the other guy's date) and it was love at first sight. We went to the Will Rogers theater on 11th. St. (old 66) and saw the movie "The Bible".
Barbara's home was just three blocks off old 66, and she often walked to school along 66, then to her father's business (also on old 66 downtown). We later attended our first year of college together at Oklahoma State and decided to get married that summer. I left school a little early and took a job offer in a little town called Carterville Missouri (that was located on old 66) just northeast of Joplin. I was Carterville's part-time police oficer and relief fire chief....my qualifications being that I was twenty-one years old!
There I was...a cop and a firefighter in Carterville, and on a genuine Route 66 Main Street!...A fact I didn't even understand until years later. I just knew it as Main Street back then. We were married at the First Baptist Church just up the street (on old 66) from the City Hall on June 14th., 1968...a marriage that has lasted now over 41 years!
Over the next six years we moved from Carterville to Joplin, to Tulsa and then to Eureka Springs , Arkansas. After spending one too many winters, we made the BIG move to Florida in 1974 (just in time for our daughter to be born) and spent the next 33 years there....about as far from Route 66 as you can get.
We visited our families in Tulsa and Joplin just about every year. Friends and loved ones moved on or passed away. and while we were gone, even the old highway that had played such a big part of our lives was "retired"....but I never noticed because I only knew it as Main Street, 7th. Street, Broadway, 2nd. Street, etc..
In the summer of 2003 my wife and I sold our home in Florida and set out to produce an RV television series titled RV USA TV. I had been producing tourism-related programming in Florida and thought this would be a great way to see parts of the country we had never been to before. We made our annual visit to Joplin and I decided to do a two-part program on Route 66 between Carthage and Baxter Springs. Only then did my Mother Road education begin. I soon learned about all of the connections my life had to Route 66...including my wedding! The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn about this old highway.
Barbara and I gradually became so facinated by the people and places in our home towns that we decided to move back to where our married life began...back to the little town of Carterville. We saw an old stone building that was for sale on Main Street and learned that it had been a Sinclair gas station that was built in 1937. It later had become a Hudson station and the owner had lived with his family in the back rooms for many years. We entered into a lease/purchase arrangement with the owner and with a lot of money and hard work, we restored the interior and made the place a Route 66 Visitors Center and gift shop.
While in the process of fixing-up the old gas station, I read an article in Route 66 magazine that mentioned that an old tow truck in nearby Galena, Kansas was the inspiration for the "Tow Mater" character. The movie "CARS" was a big hit, and I thought the old truck might be a tourist draw for Galena if someone put the truck on display. Naturally, the truck was missing from the old gas station where it had been photographed by the Pixar production group several years earlier. I asked around but no one knew where the truck was, and they also did not know it inspired the "Mater" character. After about two weeks of searching, Barbara and I were parked across front of the old station when Melba Rigg drove up. She began telling me of her plans to open a farmers market there, and was not aware of the old tow truck. In short order, I sent her sister (Renee') a copy of the magazine with the photo. Her boss and an employee remembered seeing the truck in a farm field north of town. In short order, Larry Courtney purchased the truck and decided to put it on display at the old station which he (and the four women on the Route) later worked so hard to restore. In 2008 the Four Women On the Route were named Route 66 business of the year and are today one of the "must-see" attractions on the Mother Road!
We opened a Route 66 Visitors Center in the spring of 2007 and the Route travelers began stopping-by. Some were traveling the Route for the first time while others were die-hard "Roadies" checking-out the Route for what they missed the last few trips. We met many visitors from Europe, Austrailia, Japan and all points in between. Now we knew that this old highway was really special. We learned that a Route 66 roadtrip was all about the journey, not the destination. It was all about the people and places, not the cement and asphalt beneath the wheels of their cars and motorcycles. We were witnessing a history revival, and we wanted to join those who were restoring, preserving, maintaining and promoting this piece of America's past for all generations to discover and re-discover again.
And then, as in past generations, we learned the hard way about surviving bad economic times on the Route. Gas prices were soaring and the economy was in a tailspin. We were forced to close the Visitor's Center in the fall, and handed the keys back to the owner. We had experienced failure but we were not alone. We returned to Florida in the summer of 2008 to be close to our daughter and grandkids. The business I had been in before (advertising, marketing, photography, video production and promotions) was, and still is flat. Times are tough everywhere, and I know that many Route 66 businesses are also just hanging-on....especially the "mom and pop" stores that may,or may not survive.
My wife and I missed the Route dearly. I thought that perhaps now would be the time to think of a way to attract new travelers to the Route by "educating" them much the same way we were. We observed that there are many Route 66 organizations, magazines, videos, publications, special themed events etc., and that nearly all target the business people and others who are already in the Route 66 "Fan Club", but something was missing .
We believed what was needed was an organization that goes "off-the-route" to reach Americans who may know little or nothing about Route 66, tell them why the Route is becoming so popular and give them a reason to experience a Mother Road "Vacation" instead of a Disney World trip. It's a back-to-basics, affordable way for young and old alike to learn about America, and make memories that will last a lifetime. Perhaps now is the time for a "Route 66 Chamber of Commerce", and since no one else seemed to be doing that special task, we are trying.
Barbara and I may be in our mid-60's ( I turned "66" in Dec. 2012), but we are still young at heart and looking for our next big adventure. Fail again or succeed, at least we can say we tried, and if anything we have done in the past, or will do in the future to help preserve the Mother Road for future generations is remembered, then that is the best honor of all. I truly believe that Route 66 has been an important part of my life since the day I was born, and will likely continue to be until the day I die.