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Route 66: History, Myth and Memory

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Chain of Rocks Bridge

The Mother Road Where Myth Meets Memory: The Contribution of Local Residents to the Collective Memory of Route 66

Route 66, or “The Mother Road” as named by John Steinbeck in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, was born in 1926 under the National Highway Act at a time when the government channeled vast amounts of money into a highway linking the East to the West.  During its heyday, after WWII and the decades of the 40s and the 50s, as the number of cars and trucks increased, roadside businesses and even towns sprung up: gas stations, motels, stores, restaurants and tourist shops (Faherty:2007). Advertisements urged “See the USA in your Chevrolet” and Bobby Troup sang “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” The passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 promoted by President Dwight Eisenhower, a great admirer of the German “Auto Bonne”, heralded the decline of The Mother Road. The Interstate System bypassed towns and cities many of which had no access to on and off ramps. Bobby Troup attended the ribbon cutting of the last town bypassed in Arizona and admonished the crowd by asking “Why are you cheering? This is the end of an Era” (Paget:1994). In 1984 the last stretch of the Mother Road was bypassed and shortly decommissioned.

But according to John Paget “The road stayed alive. The highway didn’t die . . Route 66 is alive and well . . . the people they are out there . . . that is what keeps the highway going.” In every city along Route 66 there is a Route 66 Association (Ibid) as well as groups advocating the re-commissioning of the entire route as a historic road, requesting citizens to contact their US representatives for money to re-sign, re-connect and repave (Cain:2008). For these people, the Mother Road has become more than a hard road but a symbol inspiring a collection of memories and myths.

Collective memory is more than “. . . just an aggregate of individuals’ personal memories . . . and is clearly not stored only  individuals’ minds but also in history books, television footage, archives, museums . . . and other unmistakably social ‘sites’ of memory” (Zerubavel:2003,316). The collective memory of Route 66 is found today in books, videos, web sites, maps, and movies, and celebrated at festivals, experienced at reproduced diners and collected for viewing and research at the National Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma. But what part of our collective memory of Route 66 is based on the actual experiences of the people who lived, traveled or did business on the Mother road?

I interviewed three individuals, Armen Rigsby, Sam Markler and Colette Andre, all from the St. Louis Metropolitan area with connections to the Mother Road, to determine what events, if any, from their personal histories contributed to the collective memory of Route 66. The memories discussed included the heyday of Route 66, the unsafe road conditions, businesses located along the route, the local bridges, traveling Route 66 for business and pleasure, and the new tourists who travel Route 66 to experience some of the myth.

The interviews began with the interviewee’s first recollection of route 66:
SM: There was no Interstate 55 when I was a kid so route 66 took all the traffic from Chicago on south. There were like 14, 000 cars and semis a day went by here. Traffic now is about 8,000 to 8,500. It just didn’t stop out here. 4th of July  . . . then we had the train in the back, L&M Train back here and Route 66 in the front. And when the train would block the crossing down here like on a holiday cars would line up bumper to bumper all the way back to Hamel. And you could sit here . . . the same person that was sitting out here would be there 2 hours, 3 hours later. We’d go out and give them glasses of water, let them come in and use the bathroom. Mom would feed them sometimes.

All of them traveled on route 66, and had relatives that traveled on Route 66 both for business and pleasure. They traveled locally, did not have much money, and did not experience the diners and shops of the legendary Route 66.

CN: Now you said you drove on Route 66. Now do you have any memories of any favorite places you would stop? Did you ever stop eat, or shop or have to get gas?

AR: Well you know, back then we didn’t have any money. We were pretty poor you know. I was bringing home about  . . . a $100 a week I was bringing home. That’s what we were living off of. That was feeding four people.

CN: Do you remember ever stopping anytime . . . to get gas? Or do you remember ever seeing anything unusual driving up or down Route 66? A theater or a motel?

AR: I don’t remember ever stopping to get gas.

AR: No.

CN: You drove straight through?

AR: Yeah. Yeah. ‘Cause I always had plenty of gas when I left here but it would take us about 3 hours of time where now you can drive it about . . . oh, anywhere in from two to two and a half hours, see. That much difference in, in time. Yeah.
CN: Now when you were traveling you had little kids . . . you were taking the kids with you?

AR: Yeah, I had two boys, yeah. Course they was small, they was small but we were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s. [pause] But ah, I don’t remember us stopping any place. Ah, to eat you know ‘cause we usually took that food with us, you know.

CN: Did you eat in the car . . . or stop to picnic?

AR: We ate in the car. Well see, we’d leave right after work you know, and go down  . . . and it’d get dark by the time we got down there you know. So that’s why we ate in the car.

Ruth Lenorovitz (2008) in her account of a trip on Route 66 in 1947 describes cooking her own food, and eating along side the road as they had “. . . planned to travel as economically as possible . . . “ Her account does not include any description of diners or food stands, but  does include the legendary motels. “We always managed to find a nice clean motel at the end of the day. . . “

Another local recalls driving through Missouri to his induction into the service:

SM: I never drove Route 66 any farther then Fort Leonard Wood. I took my basic training at fort Leonard Wood in 1957. And that is still driving old 66. It was a divided highway until you got  half way across St. Louis and then all the sudden whoosh it trimmed down to a couple of separations where it was divided but basically that was old Route 66.  I still had that Mercury when I went into the service. And I would drive 110 mile an hour down hill and then come up out of overdrive up hill because you need the RPMs so I could run 85 up hill, and 100 plus going down. You’d be driving along . . . some things really stick in your mind . . . I’d somebody in an Oldsmobile with a J-8 overhead valve. I knew what it was coming behind me and when it got along side me you could always hear it. It made a sizzling noise because the exhaust couldn’t escape out of the tailpipe because the guy had his foot to the floor. I’d be doing 100 mile an hour and the guy would just cruise on past you.

This interviewee recalls family members traveling on the road for business, and how the introduction of the interstate actually helped, not hindered their business. In contrast, the video “Route 66: America’s Highway” a local from Arizona describes the quiet after the Interstate System was established: “So we have all these highways linked up, those interstates, and they took down the shields. All of the sudden it was quiet and all you heard was the traffic in the distance on that new interstate. One day there were legions of people, all kinds of cars buses and trucks coming to spend money, coming to get hot plate lunches and the next day it stopped. Just like a dam were built up . . .  it stopped” (Paget).

AR: Now my father in law he had a store, a dry goods store and he also had a cattle truck. And he hauled people’s cattle from the country out there in, in St James in the country to St. Louis the stockyards. And traveled over 66 all the time. And he would generally always have somebody else with him you know, on the trip because it was a long trip for him. And he’s made at least two trips in one days time. And that’s, that’s a long ways. And ah, then would always take back produce you know. Feed and whatever people wanted he would. And then people out there they would kill rabbits, and they would skin ‘em and they would bring their carcasses into him and he would bring them in to St. Louis to sell them, see. They had a creamery there at the store and they sold cream and of course he would deliver that too into St. Louis. 

CN: When they put in the interstate systems, and the big highways did that have any effect on you father in laws business?

AR: No, In fact it made it easier for him coming into St. Louis.

The issue of safety on the Mother road was discussed several times by interviewees. Paget claimed “Route 66 was dangerous . . . with tortuous curves.” Mark Faherty (2007) stated “. . . safety (was) a major concern. Much of the road was either two lane or four lanes with no dividers. Head-on collisions between speeding cars were frequent and horrible.”

SM: Route 66 was just a notorious dangerous highway. You know a lot of cars travel it . . . even when I start driving in Illinois and Missouri there were no speed limits. Speed limits was whatever you considered safe and sane. That was the speed limit. I had a ’51 Mercury I drove all the time with a big V-8 and overdrive and I would routinely drive 85, 90 miles an hour. That’s how everybody drove and like in ’57 and 8 when they come out with the big overhead valve V-8’s people started pushing the 100 mark.  Cause you could cruise 100 mile an hour . . . you know, and people would put, they would take 3 or 4 pillows and put them in between you in your car. If you are going to drive your big Buick, your going to drive to Chicago well, Route 66 was over hills and around bends back then. To keep them from sliding across the seat when you go around corners at high speeds . . . so, you’re not sliding around. It’s like the original seat belt.

 I mean people drove real fast. The trucks ran . . . it was pretty scary driving and everybody would pass. If you were doing 80 and they wanted to pass you, they would look for the most minuet little space of time and, man, you’d see ‘em going and pull out in that lane. You thought, this guy is going and if you were smart you always let up on the accelerator and let him get around you. There were head on collisions all the time. If you go out this way you go down to Moony Hill and you get up to the next two curves . . . we called them Dead Man’s Curves because they weren’t banked. And people expected it to be banked and most of them were . . . so you could at least stick to 80 mile an hour. Those two curves were not banked so people went off of them all the time and got killed. You know, you wouldn’t go a month without somebody getting killed on Dead Man’ Curve out there.

This Moony Hill out here, well they hit the top of the hill you know . . .I followed my brother one night and watched him goof that thing and hit two trees and you know, when he hit the trees he was four feet off the ground he was going so fast. [Chuckled] I got him out of that car. It was just nothing to have horrible wrecks all the time because of the . . . [pause]

CN: Speed?

SM: It was amazing . . . just amazing. But you didn’t have to worry about getting into a wreck back then . . .nobody was to blame . . . nothing happened because basically everybody was killed in the wreck.

Another interviewee described the wait because of accidents.

AR: Well . . . lot of accidents. You get held up ‘cause you just had a two lane highway. You had west bound and east bound. That was it. And a lot of accidents and you get held up. You know till they got it cleared.

Edwardsville is one of the cities on Route 66 and when the Mother Road came through the town, a number of cafes, motels and tourist stops sprouted. Being the county seat, not all businesses in Edwardsville died with the opening of the Interstate System. Some survived, and of those that died some were replaced by other businesses. The following accounts are in sharp contrast to the narrative of Angel Delgadillo, Seligman, Arizona, founder of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. “We got bypassed September 22, 1978 . . .it just stopped as if they had put up gates at each end of town and forbid travelers to come into town . . . we must have lost 70-75% of the company . . . and they told the world the end of 66 and (I’m) sitting in my barbershop looking at it”(Paget). An interviewee describes the businesses along Route 66 in Edwardsville:
SM: Tom Hally . . .  a guy named Tom Hally owned that building and he started a grocery store like in 1910, something like that, and he operated that store 50 years so that is where we bought our groceries. I would come down here everyday and eat ice cream, stuff like that. So now I own the building, it’s a winery. It’s a nice old building.

CN: Where there any particular places that you would go to, visit it, stop at, hung out at on Route 66?

SM: The Highway Café down right in the corner now it’s called Neuman’s Bar. You just go right down here and you turn right were RP Lumber is on the right is this little brick building and that was like the nicest burger place in town. It was a tavern on one side and a restaurant on the other. And all through my high school years everybody went there . . .  And as you go out of town there used to be a place called the White Kitchen right out here on your left which was a wonderful restaurant. Everybody who came into town stopped at the White Kitchen. In later years it became a blues bar, and great, great musicians . . .black musicians we had around town . . . James Jackson . . .all the guys in the Jackson family were really good blues players. I mean it was just a really popular place. 

CA: What about that place your grandfather (had) was it on route 66?

SM: Yea, that was on Route 66.

CA: His grandfather owned and built a place . . . now it’s called Decamp. He’d always been a band promoter so he built this place called Decamp. He took an old house  . . . he added on to this building. He put a story onto it, built the sides out, built motels all around . . . the first place I ever saw a motel . . .and he built a dance floor because he was a band promoter.

CA: And there was a restaurant there . . .

SM: That place still runs now. All the art deco stuff is still in it. The guy that owns it really preserved it. That was a really popular place and now it’s a popular place again.

The Chain of Rocks Bridge closed in 1968, once a part of Route 66 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, has been reopened as a bike and walking trail that connects the St. Louis Riverfront Trail in Missouri and the MCT Confluence Trail in Illinois. The bridge is 5,353 feet long and considered one of the world's longest bicycle and pedestrian bridges. Opened as a toll bridge on Route 66 in 1929, many locals crossed the bridge on a daily basis traveling back and forth, from Illinois to Missouri.

SM: Oh yeah, I used to drive up as far as Springfield all the time, and I . . .  would drive into St. Louis. And I still know the trail. I mean it’s hard to follow the trail like to St. Louis because you actually you got to get off the highway to get on Fairmont road now, and you come in like Third Street in East St. Louis. And then cross on the Eads (Bridge). If you didn’t know that was the old 66 trail . . .

CN: You wouldn’t find it.

SM: . . . you wouldn’t know. But there was two trails. Then there was the trail that went over the Chain of Rocks Bridge. So you could go through St. Louis on 66. 66 also split up and went on the Chain of Rocks Bridge and met up on the other side of St. Louis, pretty well west and south. Hanging on the wall there . . . Colette’s grandfather worked on the Chain of Rocks Bridge as a toll taker way back in its heyday in the 40’s, . . . 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Colette has probably one of the only pictures . . . they found in her grandfather’s house when he died . . . they found this poster. Chain of Rocks Bridge Poster
We had it mounted in a frame it’s in the wall in there. Talk about a piece of history it really depicts the place as I remember it when I was a kid.

Another interviewee remembers the bridge.

JW: You mentioned the Chain of Rocks Bridge, did you or your family ever go to that carnival they had on top of the hill soon as you come off of Chain of Rocks, they had the big Ferris Wheel and stuff?

AR: I have been up there to it, yeah. Yeah, but it’s been a long time ago since I been up there to it. I haven’t been up there. Yeah, that’s ah, that old Chain of Rocks Bridge is quite a bridge. 

JW: Yes, it is.

AR: And it’ll be standing when these new bridges are gone.
The Historic Route 66 is populated by tourists following the Mother Road from Chicago to California, some from as far away as Europe, and “Cruisers” ( who drive Route 66 from car shows to festivals, in vintage cars dating from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Kenneth Koehler and his wife traveled on Route 66 during the summer of 2003 in search of “. . . roadside attractions . . .  (and) the roadside culture I knew was awaiting us around every bend” ( Kenneth R. Koehler (2008) photographed roadside icons from the restored Standard Sinclair Gas Station in Odell, to the Wigwam Village in Holbrook. One interviewee who owns and operates the Springer’s Creek Winery, a business on Route 66, talked about encounters with some of these tourists.

CN: Now, you where talking earlier about the people that come through here. You have a lot of people come through in June, Route 66 people.

CA: Well, we had the German couple [traveling form Chicago to California on Route 66] when we first opened and I thought that was interesting. This is a tourist destination for Europeans to come over and do Route 66. They think it is a big deal! And that was the first, and since then we haven’t had anybody from that far away but we get people that are coming down from further up north then Chicago. We had a man come through here this winter . . . where were they from . . . .Wisconsin? And they were actually doing a book or something too on Route 66. When the weather is nice, especially in June, I don’t know why . . . ah, you can sit out in the front and watch the historic cars, the classic cars go by all day. People in classic car club that do the Route 66 thing. They stop . . . “Oh, we didn’t know there was a winery here.”

Not all of the experiences of the local residents interviewed correspond to the collective memory of Route 66 which helped to create the myth. Not all of the businesses, in all of the towns, closed when the Interstate State System opened. Not everyone driving on Route 66 traveled for pleasure and frequented the motels, restaurants and tourist attraction. Local residents traveled mainly to get from one town to another, and conserved their money by bringing food with them. The Mother Road was also driven by trucks transporting locally from point A to point B. The parts of the Route 66 that do exist, but not as Historic Route 66, have been designated for other uses such as The Chain of Rocks Bridge which is now a bike and walking trail. Safety was an issue, as Route 66 was a two lane road, sometimes with no center line or speed limit and accidents were often and deadly.

Yet, the stories of local residents are important and worth recording. According to Alfred E. Young (2006:12) it is important to write the history of ordinary people because “At certain times in history, ordinary people have had enough influence to shape the outcome of events.” Ordinary people drove Route 66, some on a daily basis, and ordinary people now strive to have it designated a Historic Route from Chicago to California.

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