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The Mother Road – A Route 66 History Lesson

With the advent of motorized travel, it was clear to the public that safe, reliable roads for transporting people and goods across America were going to be a necessity. A Tulsa businessman by the name of Cyrus Avery recognized that need as well, and as chairman of Oklahoma’s state highway commission, he proposed to the federal government a southern route highway connecting Chicago and Los Angeles.  Do in no small part to his efforts, Avery’s route was approved and designated U.S. 66 in 1926.  Avery, later dubbed the “Father of Route 66,” was a champion and promoter of the highway, founding the U.S. 66 Highway Association and coining the route’s nickname, “the Main Street of America.”

Following its commissioning, the majority of the route was nothing more than a graded dirt or gravel road, not unlike the other early highways of the time. Route 66 would not be fully paved until 1938, at which point it became the first all-weather highway connecting Chicago to Los Angeles. Also, as the shortest route between Chicago and Los Angeles by more than 200 miles, it became a popular trucking route, as well as serving as the main route to California for the thousands of families fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  As a matter of fact, it was because of this that it got its most famous name, “The Mother Road” – the name given it by John Steinbeck in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Throughout the 1930s to 1960s, Route 66 was a mainstay of popular culture, embodying the American spirit in books, music, movies, and television. From “The Grapes of Wrath” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” to Bobby Troup’s “Get your Kicks on Route 66” and Dennis Hopper’s iconic “Easy Rider,” nothing expressed the quest for individual freedom better than the open road of Route 66.

During its heyday, neon played an important role along Route 66, with many neon signs acting as beacons in the night advertising the many roadside motels, service stations, and businesses catering to weary travelers. 

Tulsa Auto Court, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Will Rogers Motor Court, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Park Plaza Court Motel, St. Louis, Missouri
Tucumcari, New Mexico
Palomino Motel, Tucumcari, New Mexico
Barstow, California

The beginning of the end for Route 66 came in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, establishing the 47,800 mile Interstate Highway System, the largest public works project up to that point in American history (drawing on his experiences in the military and WWII, Eisenhower advocated for a national highway system for the purpose of national defense).  Finally decommissioned in 1985, a large portion of Route 66 was ultimately replaced by Interstate 40.  Gone, but not forgotten, many stretches of Route 66 have been preserved, which has led to the revitalization of many businesses catering to those travelers looking to experience a bygone area. 

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