“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Nat King Cole’s 1946 smash was more than just another hit; it became an anthem celebrating America’s post-WWII wanderlust. When I was a young lad, our family made that mythical California trip, cruising 2,000 miles of fabled highway in a 1949 Ford station wagon. We saw oil wells for the first time in Oklahoma, and in the mountains around Flagstaff, Arizona, the sight of snow in summer was so unusual that we stopped to play in it and take pictures. New sights and experiences greeted us all along the way, and the sense of wonder I felt became a lasting part of me. In hindsight, I consider myself blessed to have experienced Route 66 at its zenith. Now retired, I’ve found great pleasure in retracing that journey to reawaken fond memories, and make new ones, joining the thousands of people who set out every year to follow the eight-state route of America’s Mother Road.
Making that pilgrimage invariably takes me through Springfield, Missouri, a thriving city of 160,000 now recognized as the birthplace of Route 66. I discovered this historic designation, and much more, at the Route 66 Springfield Visitor Center, a primary source of information for any Route 66 adventure. Located on the highway’s original right of way through town, the center offers maps, driving directions and regional highlights that helped me discover the top five fun things to see and do in the Springfield area and some historical tidbits.
Another source of local Mother Road color is the Rail Haven, a vintage Route 66 motel (now a Best Western affiliate) that’s been beautifully preserved and updated to combine vintage roadside charm with modern comfort and convenience. I learned that when Elvis Presley performed in Springfield in 1956, he stayed at the Rail Haven, and that the room he occupied has been preserved in his honor. Today’s travelers can arrange, as I did, to stay in the Elvis Presley suite, with décor featuring an original mural, one of his authentic gold records, and a handsome photographic portrait (yes, his eyes follow you around the room). But the crowning touch is a king-size pink Cadillac bed, where I slept like, well, like a king! The Rail Haven is just one example of the colorful stories that make Springfield a preferred base for my explorations of the Route 66 heritage that remains an integral part of local culture.
Route 66 lore is a specialty at Springfield’s History Museum on the Square, another must-see. Through photos and other exhibits, I gained an enriched understanding of the life-changing impact the highway had on the town, and the nation. The museum is packed with other historic footnotes, too, such as how the Ozark Jubilee, the country’s first coast-to-coast country music television show, was broadcast live on ABC from a downtown Route 66 theater in the 1950s.
For many years, U.S. 66 passed directly through Springfield’s Park Central Square. Along the town’s commercial and cultural hub, the Square is a favorite Springfield feature, and not just because of the museum. The central plaza, which once provided parking for shoppers and travelers alike, is now an inviting pedestrian space, with an appealing blend of shops, bistros and a variety of cuisines nearby. The city of Springfield has done an admirable job of upgrading and keeping the old town center vibrant and alive, so much so that Park Central Square was recognized in 2015 as one of four Great Places in Missouri by the Missouri Chapter of the American Planning Association.
Springfield’s historic College Street Corridor, a city street that once served as the highway’s path heading west out of town, offers an inviting array of original Route 66 ambience that I love to explore, including the Birthplace of Route 66 Roadside Park and numerous older buildings housing cafes, flea markets and other businesses reflecting the glory days of the Mother Road. The Melinda Court Motel (originally the Rock Fountain Court), featuring individual cabins built of local stone, is another favorite stop. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and now restored, the Melinda offers an accurate example of roadside ‘motor court’ lodgings that were typically available to early Route 66 tourists.
A few scenic miles west of Springfield on old 66 (now designated as Missouri 266), the hamlet of Halltown offers a rewarding day trip as an example of the hundreds of villages and small towns that were interconnected by America’s Main Street. I like to poke around in Whitehall Mercantile, an old general store overflowing with antiques and collectibles. Other historic buildings provide authentic examples of the sights witnessed by passing travelers over 60 years ago.
At the History Museum, I learned that Springfield’s emergence as the Birthplace of Route 66 began back in the 1920s, when the federal government first mandated construction of a national highway system. The original push for 2,248 miles of paved road between Chicago and Los Angeles was the brainchild of two forward-looking entrepreneurs: Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma and John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri. These two men also proposed naming the new road “U.S. 66.” A placard, now located on the east side of Park Central Square, commemorates Springfield’s subsequent designation as the official birthplace of Route 66.
August 12–14, I’ll be in back Springfield to attend the town’s Birthplace of Route 66 Festival for 2016, a shindig well worthy of a road trip. Vintage vehicles from all over the country will be cruising in to join in the Friday evening kick-off parade, and to participate in the annual Car & Motorcycle Show that continues through the weekend. Other events and attractions will include Vendors Village, a 6.6-mile fun run, and the annual gathering of authors, artists, collectors and associations who share an abiding appreciation for the Main Street of America. Friday and Saturday activities will conclude with evening concerts in Park Central Square’s magnificently restored Gillioz Theatre, featuring top national acts Asleep at the Wheel, Rhonda Vincent, and others to be announced. Sound like fun? It will be, and if you’ll get hip to this timely tip, maybe I’ll see you there!
Learn more about Route 66 in Springfield and plan your getaway.
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