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Route 66: History, Myth and Memory

Kye Miller's Project

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Soulsby Shell Station, Mount Olive, Illinois as of July 1926. The station was one of the earliest gas stations on Route 66 in the southwestern Illinois region, opening in 1925 and operating until 1991. The station had two gas pumps, a car ramp, and no restroom. An addition was made to the station in the past and it was recently rehabilitated due to its historic nature.
 

Gas pumps currently at the Soulsby station. These Shell pumps were never used at the station, but were bought and displayed by the current owner (Mike Dragovich) to represent the historic nature of the gas station.

 

In this undated photograph, the pumps are being updated and replaced at the Soulsby Shell Station. The pumps were changed about four times throughout its history.

 
A sign commemorating the station and designating it as a historic gas station is located on the property. The sign explains a brief history of the station and also includes other places, not necessarily pertaining to Route 66, in Mount Olive to visit.

Soulsby Shell Station

The Soulsby Shell Station is one of the oldest, and oldest remaining, gas stations in southwestern Illinois. The gas station was built in 1925 by Russell Soulsby. He apparently caught an “early drift” concerning the relocation of Route 66 to run through Mount Olive and decided to invest in a gas station. The gas station was completed in 1925 and began operating a few months before 1926. Russell and his sister Ola generally worked at the station seven days a week all year. Their house was located directly behind the station. Russell Soulsby owned the gas station until he sold the station in 1998. Now, the station is owned by Mike Dragovich, who formed the Soulsby Station Society with Tom Teague, a Route 66 enthusiast and author.

The station is 13 x 20 feet and has two gas pumps feeding from one underground tank. A car ramp is located on the south side of the station, only accommodating older cars with smaller tires such as Model-Ts. Eventually, an oak sapling began to arise between the ramp and Russell let it grow to discourage people from changing oil on his property and damaging their tires. Apparently children often rode their bikes on the ramp, which Russell discouraged due to safety and liability concerns. A few walnut trees are located behind the station. A customer drove through the area, possibly in the late sixties, and really liked the Soulsby station so they decided to donate walnut tress to Russell.

The station had one gas tank, probably containing around two thousand gallons. In the early days, gas trucks would come daily; however Russell ran out a gas at times due to availability and demand. In 1991, the EPA concluded the station did not meet modern fuel standards. Russell did not have the funds nor the will to replace the gas tank. The day the tank came out must have been an extremely emotional day for Russell, marking the end of gasoline sales at the station and the beginning of the station’s economic decline.

The station was used for multiple economic activities by the Soulsby family. At times sandwiches were sold at the station. After Russell returned from World War II, in which he worked with electronics, he also began repairing televisions at the station. After the station stopped offering gas, Russell remained there fixing televisions for the local community.

The current owner, Mike Dragovich, recalls when he purchased the station:

[The station was] $18,100 [and] the house was about $23,000 and two lots sold for $4,000 at the time. That was in June of 1997, I had to pay for [the] car ramp extra, [gave the Soulsby’s] about 100 bucks for that… [The station] was an adjoining property, yeah, how many people stopped and talking to Soulsby. [He] was like one of the first ones … in the hall of fame … but I didn’t know it could have turned into a big as deal as it was so after I bought it and people walked around here and said it’s a gold mine in the future.

In earlier days, the station got relatively more business. Less gas stations were around and more people traveled in busses and such crossing Illinois. Russell remembered bus loads of baseball players and tourists would stop by his station and offer their business. The gas was generally a bit more expensive; however, travelers and locals alike would stop at the station to engage in conversation with Russell.

Russell and his station eventually became popular among Route 66 fans. He won numerous awards from the Shell Corporation for his continued operations. He received plaques commemorating his 30th, 40th, and 65th opening anniversaries. In 1990, Russell was bestowed with entrance into the Route 66 Hall of Fame of Illinois. This greatly increased Route 66 travelers to visit the site and boosted the station’s historic and mythological status. The majority of non-local travelers came to the station after it discontinued gasoline sales.

Russell claimed the song “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” written by Bobby Troup and performed by Nat King Cole, was the driving force in the creation of the mythology surrounding Route 66. During the time, in the mid forties, Route 66 was in its heyday and speeding towards obsolete status. The song reminded people of the road and feelings associated along with the road and basically cemented Route 66 into the minds and hearts of Americans. The 1950s brought the interstate system which took the place of state and national highways.

Many people stopped by the station once the mythology set in. April to October is traveling season and the times in which most people visit(ed) the site. Authors, travelers, and others visited the site to reflect on the past. A poster of Route 66 exists in the station which contains old Route 66 stamps and signatures from many enthusiasts. Tom Teague, author, Mike Wallace, journalist, and Bobby Troupe, songwriter, are just a few Route 66 fans and celebrities who have signed the poster. Many foreigners have also caught Route 66 fever. Apparently the myth is huge in western Europe. Many Germans have stopped through, often riding motorcycles in groups of a few to a few dozen. On one specific occasion, a German woman had an accident in front of the Soulsby station. Only one person in town knew German so he came down and helped the travelers on their way. Other foreign visitors include people from Switzerland, Japan, Israel, Italy, and other countries around the world.


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