Route 66 sign
Route 66: History, Myth and Memory


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Meramec Caverns

Chain of Rocks Bridge

Route 66 State Park
Photo Essay


Travel in America changed with the development of the new highway systems.  The old ways of travel slipped from the commonplace to memory.  Tourism also changed with these developments.  The once slower travel that took place by going from one small town to the next ended with the creation of the superhighway.  This would change how parks, and tourist attractions along the route advertised to the consumers.  It had to have a greater draw than just the typical billboard along Route 66.

Billboard on Route 66 in Hamel, Illinois.  Photo provided by Kristi Shaffer. 

This draw was created in the route itself.  Route 66 is a road that is both historic and mythic at the same time.  As society changed rapidly, tourists found themselves longing for the memory of Route 66 along with its parks, curiosities, and small towns.  The tourists slowly began to return, not just to the old destinations that they remembered, but also to the route itself and new attractions that reflected the mythology of the route.  Historically, marketing brought tourists to the route in order to get to their destination.  After the route became an icon the marketing was no longer to draw consumers to the destination by the road, but to make the road the destination, with the parks being a part of the greater attraction that is Route 66.

In order to understand tourism in America, it is necessary to look at the typical American culture.  One definition of culture is “[l]earned patterns of thought and behavior characteristic of a particular social group” (Applying Anthropology 2007: G-3).  If this is the definition of culture then American tourist culture is the thoughts and behaviors of tourists, operators of tourist attractions, and the materials that exhibit these thoughts and behaviors.  Essentially, tourist culture can be anything that deals with tourism.  It could be the simplest souvenir all the way to stories told around the campfire.  This is broad, and business people consistently look for ways to market towards this culture.  Advertisements towards tourism sometimes become an icon of culture.

According to Ann R. Carden:
[c]ultural icons are not created; they are not introduced as such into the marketplace.  Rather, they are introduced to society as a “brand” through marketing, advertising, and publicity, and evolve into an icon if successful, which depends largely on consumer response to the branding. (2006: 51)

Route 66 and many associated sites have become icons through this successful marketing to the culture of tourism.

The best-known icon of Route 66 is the emblem created to denote the route.

Historical Route 66 Marker on Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri.  Picture by Kristi Shaffer

According to Arthur Krim the 66 shield was created by Cyrus Avery, chairman of the Oklahoma Highway Commission in 1925, perhaps using earlier examples of other highway signs (2005: 61).  Essentially it achieved a status of icon through the response of the tourists.  When the route opened in 1926 the road drew a great deal of attention from tourists (until the depression) and played upon their desires to travel especial to the West (Carden 2006:55).  The Route was also promoted through races such as the Great Transcontinental Footrace developed by C. C. Pyle in 1927-28 (Nodelman 2007: 169).  New Mexico advertised the road “culminating a record-breaking  amount of $135,000 being spent in one year” (Nodelman 2007: 169).  The road changed during the depression from tourism to poverty stricken travelers looking for work.  According to Carden, during the Great Depression the route became a source of both escape and hope to people (Carden 2006:55).  Many people found work by opening businesses along the route providing goods and services to the travelers.  Carden states:

" [g]as stations expanded to include small items like cigarettes, candy and food, and eventually housed restaurants.  Campgrounds expanded to include cabins; motor courts eventually ruled the highway" (2006: 55).

After World War II several factors came together to create a boom in tourism.  The economy was at an all time high, cars were being manufactured quickly and inexpensively, and middle class America had a new sense of hope (Carden 2006:56).  Families did not travel to look for work, but for entertainment.  Businesses along the route did their part, providing every kind of imaginable gimmick to entertain their customers (Carden 2006:56).  These businesses utilized advertising and marketing to draw tourists to their sites. Neon signs flashed at restaurants, hotels, and gas stations (Doughtery 2004: 50).  Other places had statues formed from fiberglass (Doughtery 2004: 50).  The main idea was to capture the attention of the tourist before your competitor did.  Postcards were sold in hotels and other locations along the route (Krim 2005: 130).  Innovative marketer, Les Dill, advertised his privately ran show cave, Meramec Caverns, by using billboards and painted barns along the route (Winnerman 2007: 10).  Later Dill would use the cars on the route to advertise by inventing the first bumper sticker in 1928, at a different cave (Curtis 1997: 11).  These were also used at Meramec and included the site’s name and location and carefully placed on the edge of the bumper, adhesive was added in later years (Curtis 1997: 11).  Anyone following a recent visitor could see the bumper sticker followed by miles of billboards and painted barns denoting the grandeur of Meramec Caverns.  Tourist interest could easily be peaked by the level of advertising alone.

While some of the Rt. 66 sites would continue to use heavy marketing to attract tourists, the route changed and marketing of many of the individual sites was insufficient.  The superhighway systems began to bypass Route 66 in the late 50’s (Krim 2005: 137).  In a matter of years small towns lost the vital tourism that enlivened their economy.  Phyllis Zauner states:
Once-thriving motels and cabins, gas stations and curio shops were left out to dry.  The legendary highway itself fell into disrepair: Weeds sprouted from jagged gaps in its surface, potholes proliferated upon baked segments of the road.  In 1984, the so-called “mother road”…was quietly decertified.  Old, decayed and all but forgotten, Route 66 was removed from maps (1996:par 5-6).

Many motels, gas stations, and restaurants closed

Abandoned gas station neon sign Chain of Rocks Road-Historic Route 66 Mitchell, Illinois. Picture by Kristi Shaffer

Small towns dependent on tourists had to find ways to survive.  Some became poverty stricken areas without industry or a strong economical foundation.  Times Beach became a town that fell into this category.  Once a thriving summer vacation town, the town declined and fell prey to illegal dumping of toxins (Teague 1991 36-40).  The town was dependent on the route as its only roadway in or out (Teague 1991:36).  Times Beach incorporated in 1957, the same year the new highway system plan was approved (Teague 1991:37; St. Louis County Department of Planning 1970:6; and Krim 2005:137).  In 1970 deteriorating housing accounted for half of the buildings within the community (St. Louis County Department of Planning 1970:26).  Tourists were no longer attracted to the small town, and bypassed many of the attractions by taking the superhighway.

This bypass did not only affect the towns and attractions but the road itself was affected.  Chain of Rocks Bridge in Mitchell, Illinois was bypassed in 1968 and was scheduled for demolition in 1975.  The demolition was halted due to economical reasons, and maybe due to the use in a movie “Escape From New York” with the actor Kurt Russell.

Chain of Rocks Bridge

The bridge originally took many tourists to an amusement park, The Chain of Rocks Amusement park.  However with people choosing I-270 instead of Route 66 the park declined, and closed in the late 1970’s (Garner 2007:117).  The individual sites could not market towards tourists without bringing them back to the road.

In Route 66’s peak years people traveled on it looking for work, entertainment, and westward destinations, but this completely changed after the superhighways entered the scene.  The decertified status of The Route occurred at the same time a new phenomenon took place.  International travelers were coming to look for Route 66.  Watching reruns of the 1960’s television series Route 66, the foreigners wanted to see the real road (Carden 2006:56-57).  Travelers from America also increased in the 1990’s as a longing for nostalgia developed in the baby boomer generation (Carden 2006:57).  These tourists looking for a memory began to form together and developed organizations to preserve Route 66, and before long businesses that were nearly forgotten saw an opportunity and joined the efforts (Carden 2006:57).  The government also joined these efforts when “[i]n 1990, President George Bush signed legislation to preserve and commemorate Route 66 as a national monument” (Zauner 1996:par 8).  The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program developed plans to preserve many areas of the road.  The group started in 1999, and in 2007 alone they provided ten grants, which equaled over $163,000 for grants and over $163,000 in cost sharing ( 4).  Parts of this project and other preservation efforts included historical markers, rehabilitation of deteriorated sites, and recording of oral histories (Dougherty 2004:53 and Zauner 1996:par 9).  With the greater level of preservation comes a greater interest in tourism.  Tourists are beginning to return to Route 66, but no longer are they looking for a job or just entertainment along the way.  Many are returning looking for the past, and perhaps looking for America.

This is where Route 66 becomes a myth.  People once used The Route as a means of transportation, a way to get to a destination that held hope or entertainment.  Now Route 66 is the destination and people are looking at the road as a link to the past, which many believe to be a time of innocence.  According to J. N. Nodelman the “spirited and independent entrepreneurial creativity [of Route 66 and it’s businesses], even if grounded in historical falsehood, seems well worth recognizing” (2007: 166). Whether or not the American memory of the road is historically accurate is of little consequence for most tourists.  The sites now want to be known as a Route 66 site or town, regardless of the true history of the site.  In fact this has led to many new businesses opening with Route 66 themes, many of which are either no where near 66, or did not exist during the historical period of 66.  Historical sites sometimes ignore, or skim over the real history to connect to the mythology of the route.  Times Beach is a perfect example.  After years of dioxin dumping the site was declared a hazardous site by the EPA in 1982 and bought the community out in 1984..  Today the site is known as Route 66 State Park, the houses are gone, the waste burned in an incinerator, and new trails and wild areas have taken the spot of the old town.  There is a small museum at the site, but the draw to the park is not the lost town or the history of the citizens of this tragic place.  Tourists come to the site looking for the namesake, Route 66, and the state park dedicated to it.  If they get a sense of real history of poverty, pollution and devastation during their visit it is not because that was what they were looking for, nor was it what is advertised.  The Route 66 Association of Missouri states that the park “fills a need in Missouri by offering a stopping point of recognized value to all Route 66 travelers….The park now clearly serves as both a tourist destination and local attraction” The group does recognize in their website that the site was a former town and had been contaminated.  History is often glossed over in this manner in order to remove the actual tourists and residents from the fictionalized myth.  Nodelman states that many narratives “make Route 66 accessible by removing the people travelling [sic] it” (2007:172).  By making the road about buildings, landscapes, and dreams tourists can insert themselves into the picture of the story of 66 without the demands of the true narratives (Nodelman 2007: 172).  This is how many sites now market towards their potential customers, a self-conceptualized story of America.

Marketing sites to Route 66 tourists has changed, as has the route. Once the route was a way to get to a better life, or a time of diversion from daily life.  This led later tourists to believe that the route represented simpler times, and therefore become an icon.  This takes us back to the definition of both culture and American tourist culture defined previously.  The route has become a part of our tourist culture because many have learned to think of the route as an American icon.  Simply stated they believe it represents innocence, freedom, and simple times.  They therefore behave in manners as to create the route as a historical icon, using national funds to preserve the sites.  However sometimes the real history of the route is ignored, bypassed, or understated. Despite this neglect tourists still flock to the route.  Not just to see the curiosities, restaurants, gas stations, and natural wonders along the way, but also to experience the route as a whole.  Not every tourist drives the entire route, but even in driving a portion they have connected themselves with a larger idea.  They look for the destination of Route 66; and in doing so they look for their idea of America, the past, the future, and their own identity. While Route 66 is marketed as a place of tourism, an ad agent did not design it as an icon.  The recognition of 66 across America was not designed as a marketing tool to lure people, but it grew into an icon within the American psyche.  It was already there, spurned forward by changes in a fast paced world and the creation of superhighways.  This completely changed how sites along the route advertised themselves to Route 66 tourists.  They no longer were just tourist attractions on a common road, but a stop on the tourist destination of Route 66. 


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Published by: Department of Anthropology, SIUE
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