Route 66 in the News

Enjoying Route 66 in Missouri

2010-07-04 12:50:26

SAINT LOUIS, Mo. - If summer days have you itching to take a road trip, grab the wheel and wander through Missouri on Historic Route 66.

Whether in a convertible with the top down, on a Harley, in the family sedan or in a vintage wood-paneled station wagon known as a woodie, you'll take a nostalgic journey through classic Americana.

Although the official U.S. Route 66 was replaced by interstate highways and decommissioned in the 1980s, Historic Route 66 remains a marked scenic byway from Chicago to Los Angeles. In Missouri, its various numbered roads roughly parallel Interstate 44 from St. Louis southwest to Joplin, a distance of 280 to 317 miles (depending whether you include spurs along former road alignments). Plan to take four days, hopping on and off the interstate to check out the main points of interest.

From the banks of the Mississippi

If you're a purist, start at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, crossing the Mississippi River from Illinois north of St. Louis. The steel-truss bridge, built in 1929, is now closed to vehicles, but you can walk across.

Or set off from St. Louis, stopping on Chippewa Street to order a concrete at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, which has been dishing out treats since 1941.

Continue west to St. Louis County and the Museum of Transportation, where exhibits tell the Route 66 story. You'll see a portion of an original no-tell motel the art deco Coral Court, originally on Watson Road and a Depression-era jalopy that the Joad family might have driven west in "The Grapes of Wrath." The book's author, John Steinbeck, was the first to call Route 66 the "Mother Road."

After another short drive, you can stretch your legs and take in another "Mother Road" exhibit at Route 66 State Park near Eureka, then head to Stanton and Meramec Caverns, one of the oldest roadside attractions on the route.

When it opened in 1935, Meramec Caverns advertised by painting its name on roofs and roadside barns from coast to coast, prompting motorists to stop and see the stalagmites and the reputed hideout of Jesse James and his gang. Today, visitors can tour the cave, pan for gold, buy fudge, take boat rides and rent a canoe on the Meramec River. A new zip line takes visitors on a one-hour canopy tour through the trees and over the river.

MURAL CITY

Although Route 66 was commissioned in 1926, the portion that runs through the town of Cuba wasn't completed until 1931. The Wagon Wheel Motel has been in business ever since, earning a listing on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest continuously operating motel on Route 66. Its stone cottages just have been spiffed up for guests.

Cuba is best known for its collection of 12 murals painted from 2001-2007. At the "Four Way," the intersection that had the only stop sign between St. Louis and Springfield during Route 66's heyday, a mural decorates a stone filling station built in 1932. Other murals tell tales from the history of the town, including a mysterious stopover by aviator Amelia Earhart.

Four miles west of Cuba, you can have your picture taken at the World's Largest Rocker, which is just over 42 feet tall. On the first Saturday in August, the Cuba fire department raises funds by using its crane to lift people into the chair.

If trinkets-and-trash stores are your thing, stop in Rolla to browse the Totem Pole Trading Post. It claims to be the oldest original business on Missouri Route 66 that's still in operation, selling a hodgepodge of flea-market finds, moccasins, fireworks, T-shirts and assorted kitsch.

Zeno's Motel and Steakhouse is next door. Owner Michael Zeno Scheffer says he plans to erect a new sign that reads "Studio Inn," the name his grandfather used when he opened the motel in 1957. Scheffer is also adding a brewery. Both changes are meant to appeal to travelers on Route 66. "We get a lot of people from overseas," he says, and most of them arrive on motorcycles.

A BEAUTY OF A BIKER BAR

Terry Roberson agrees. "Route 66 is more known among foreigners than Americans," says Roberson, owner of the charmingly seedy Elbow Inn in the hamlet of Devils Elbow, about 20 miles from Rolla. The foreign tourists rent motorcycles in Chicago, pick up Route 66 and spend 12 days following the road to the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, Calif.

And what does his naughty-but-nice biker bar offer them? A pool table, gritty bar and dozens hundreds? of bras tacked to the ceiling, most decorated with graffiti. Roberson shrugs. "It's a biker thing."

The Elbow Inn dates to the 1930s, when it was the Munger Moss Sandwich Shop, a famous stop on the "Mother Road." Its current name is in homage to the treacherous bend in the Big Piney River that flows next to the inn. Walk over to the dilapidated steel bridge, now restricted to 25 mph, and have a look at the bluffs poking out from the forested river banks.

After nearby Fort Leonard Wood was constructed, Route 66 was rerouted around Devils Elbow. The fort is a popular detour from Route 66 for veterans or for anyone with an interest in military history. A museum complex is devoted to military police, army engineers and chemical specialists. A section of the Berlin Wall stands outside. You also can see barracks, a chapel, tanks and other equipment in a World War II compound.

Next, head southwest to Lebanon, passing the Munger Moss Motel, an original auto court motel still sporting its vintage signs.

Lebanon's public library houses the Route 66 Museum and Research center and Maria's Route 66 Cafe. Bill Wheeler, who formed the local Route 66 Society, says the museum gets as many as 3,000 visitors a month, from every U.S. state and 75 foreign countries. Why the interest in Route 66? "I don't have a clue," he says. "Perhaps it takes you back to a more peaceful, less hectic time."

Inside the museum, you'll find vintage Phillip's 66 and Texaco gas pumps, a collection of salt and pepper shakers from Route 66 restaurants, blueprints of the construction of the highway, a library of Route 66 books and rare maps.

BIRTHPLACE OF ROUTE 66

The road rises to Springfield, which sits on a plateau of the Ozarks Mountains. Stop for a local Mueller beer at Springfield Brewing Co., or have stuffed oatmeal or eggs with sweet potato hash browns for breakfast at Gailey's Cafe, a 1930s diner. Also along the downtown stretch of Route 66 are the renovated Gillioz Theater, built in 1929, and the 1923 Shrine Mosque, where Elvis once played.

The Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven motel has been refurbished to reflect its glory days. Named for the split-rail fence that once surrounded the original motor court, the motel plays up its past with old cars and gas pumps (ethyl for 32 cents a gallon!) and themed suites named for Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

Springfield claims to be the birthplace of Route 66 because the name of the highway was proposed there on April 30, 1926. Today the city is the headquarters of Great River Engineering, which is wrapping up Missouri's Route 66 Corridor Management Plan and pushing for the route's designation as a National Scenic Byway or All American Road. The plan pinpoints, with GPS, 362 points of interest on and adjacent to old Route 66 in Missouri, such as stone tourist courts, filling stations and ma-and pa restaurants. To find them, click on the map at route66.greatrivereng.com.

The architecture of the old buildings is beautiful, even those no longer in use, says Jerany Jackson, one of the plan developers. "Sometimes the ruins along the road are almost of more interest."

Some of those ruins have been rescued at Red Oak II, a tourist attraction created by artist Lowell Davis as a nostalgic replacement for his hometown, Red Oak, which vanished after World War II. Along with a country church, one-room schoolhouse, streetcar-turned-diner and Belle Starr's home, some Route 66 buildings have been relocated there, including tourist court cottages, a Phillips 66 gas station and the oldest surviving Standard Oil Station on the "Mother Road."

MILLIONAIRES ON THE 'MOTHER ROAD'

Route 66 runs through nearby Carthage, where a small museum devoted to the road is housed in the Jasper County Courthouse. In the mid-1890s, Carthage had the most millionaires per capita in the country, thanks to the discovery of lead and zinc deposits in the area. Today, the town has three historic districts and 20 Victorian mansions built by mine owners and mattress titans. Several of the homes now are museums and bed-and-breakfasts.

Head west out of town and you'll pass the last operational drive-in movie theater named for Route 66. It shows first-run films on weekends, April through September.

While Carthage was the home of the mine owners, the miners lived 10 miles away in Webb City. In King Jack Park, you can hop aboard a free 1916 trolley. As it makes its way around Sucker Flats, a large surface mine now filled with water, the trolley passes the 32-foot Praying Hands statue, a Route 66 icon created more than 36 years ago.

HOT JOPLIN

The mines also made Joplin a boomtown a wild one around the turn of the last century. Stop in the lobby of City Hall to see how famed Missouri muralist Thomas Hart Benton depicted the lawless town. A mural by his grandson installed there this spring shows Joplin in the heyday of Route 66.

Route 66 might have been an escape route for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow when they fled Joplin after a shoot-out at their apartment in 1933. They left behind a camera, and when the film was developed, the authorities finally knew what the couple looked like. Some of the photos are on display at the Joplin Museum Complex, along with jewelry, clothing and other items left at the scene.

Joplin marks the end of the "Mother Road" in Missouri, and the city is spiffing up its downtown to capture the romance of the Route 66 era, says Vince Lindstrom, director of the convention and visitors bureau. Travelers still want to go back to the days when "everyone wanted to take their Chevy or their woodie and head west."

~Katherine Rodeghier, STLToday.com

 

See also:

 

Comments about this article? Tell us.

Need to Know More?

SEARCH Route 66 University.

Have some Route 66 news to share?

Contact us. We'd love to add your story.