May 13, 2024

The People and Places of Route 66

The “Mother Road” has meant so much to so many people since it was established in November of 1926 and officially added to the US highway system the following year Generations have shared their memories of the people and places they remember from their journeys between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Families used the route to go visit relatives, stopping at the quirky attractions and roadside inns along the way. Some even got married on the stretch of road. More recently, viewers of the movie Cars came to see landmarks like the Blue Swallow Motel for themselves.

It signified American independence and possibilities, and as a road is a tapestry of diverse cultures and histories. To honor that history the National Trust for Historic Preservation is gathering 2,026 stories in time for Route 66’s centennial in 2026. So many travelers have submitted their stories of Route 66 as a way to preserve them.

“We felt as though we were channeling the hopes, dreams, and spirits of all who had passed that way before us,” wrote one submission . It’s a sentiment many who take the trip will share.

The People

Route 66 is more than just a series of places but is an interconnected network of individuals working together to make it possible.

Casey Claypool wrote of the Decks family, who ran a drug store in Chatham, Illinois from 1884 to 2001. Claypool purchased and remodeled the old-fashioned soda fountain in 2021 and reopened it under the name Docs, continuing to serve meals for generations of road trippers to come.

Alf’s Blacksmith Shop was built by Seymore Alf in Daggett, California in 1890 and developed alongside Route 66. The mule teams that crossed the Mojave came through this part of the desert country, writes his great great granddaughter, user Caitlin Hibma. “His blacksmith shop still stands and is preserved almost exactly as it was in the 1890s; tools, forge, and all.”

View of a single wooden structure with some fencing and other materials in front.

photo by: Caitlin Hibma

A group of people standing together in the Shea Museum on Route 66.

photo by: Jan and Fred Hulsey

Bill Shea was a legend unto himself, the proprietor of Shea’s Gas Station Museum in Springfield, Illinois, which started as a Marathon gas station in 1955. It was filled with memorabilia from its time as a gas station and locale on the Mother Road. After Shea’s death in 2013, it was sold and auctioned off.

Travelers Jan and Fred Hulsey got to meet him in 2009: “We had a great time chatting with him and looking over all the treasures he had on display. So glad we took the trip when we did.”

But it’s not just the people that ran the businesses but also the people that designed the buildings we recognize today. The firm Jones and Emmons was responsible for many of the midcentury era’s most iconic buildings in Southern California. The offices were built in 1954, right on Route 66 before it reaches Santa Monica. Today it’s a city monument and home to another architecture firm.

The Places

Of course, you can’t drive Route 66 without stopping along the way. It’s impossible to see the thousands of landmarks, but a handful have been favorites of travelers for generations.

In Carthage, Missouri, Boots Court stands firmly in its nostalgia, with a similar experience to what a traveler might have enjoyed in its heyday meaning radios instead of televisions. Today it will cost you more than $2.50 per night, but guests can stay where film legend Clark Gable slept.

“It is without question one of the coolest and most authentically vintage places we stayed on our entire Route 66 journey in 2017,” penned user Jennifer Christianson.

View of Boots Court on Route 66 at night with neon lighting up the building.

photo by: Jennifer Christianson

View of a car in front of a structure with a neon sign in the window and a hanging sign that says Bagdad Cafe.

photo by: Thurman Allen

You’ve never seen anything quite like Cadillac Ranch, a Stonehenge-like formation of the classic cars covered in graffiti near Amarillo, Texas. The Cadillacs range in age from the 1940s to the 1960s and were set up in 1974 as part of an art installation. They rise up out of the landscape and were even featured in several music videos and movies.

Albuquerque’s famous Dog House Drive-In, with its neon-lit dachshund, has fed hungry travelers for decades and even appeared in the series Breaking Bad. As the name implies, hot dogs are on offer, specifically foot longs covered in chili, plus chili burgers and Frito pies.

Bagdad Cafe is located in one of the driest areas in the country. Renamed after the film of the same name used it as a location, the restaurant is now covered in stickers, flags, and mementoes from travelers far and wide. User Thurman Allen was among them, settling in for a burger after closing and receiving a pack of postcards for free. “Random encounters like this make Route 66 more than just a road. It’s an icon.”

The Vanished

Some of Route 66’s treasures now exist only in our memories or yellowed photos. Others no longer look like they once did, grown over or covered in paint.

The neon design signs with big arrows and Googie-style fonts of since-shuttered motels are a reminder of what once was. They include New Mexico’s Grandview Motel and Oklahoma’s Glancy Motel.

Little remains of John's Modern Cabins in Rolla, Missouri, which has been abandoned since 1971. The foliage has slowly overtaken the remaining wooden structures, becoming a favorite of photographers.

View of cabins with a sign that says John's Modern Cabins with overgrowth and foliage everywhere.

photo by: Micheal Peterson

Postcard print of the Golden Star Restaurant

photo by: Dick Gee

“Obscured by a canopy of trees, six tiny, crumbling cabins sit next to a quiet, dead-end stretch of Route 66 that runs parallel to Interstate 44 about 10 miles outside of Rolla, Mo.,” writes user Micheal Peterson.

Michael Still was able to visit the Twin Arrows near Flagstaff, Arizona before they came down. The pair was originally installed at a truck stop in the 1950s. Other users posted photos of them covered in graffiti and broken into pieces.

Dick Gee recalls the Golden Star Restaurant, also in Flagstaff, with its lava rock decor and Polynesian tiki bar inside. “This fabulous 1960s mid-century modern restaurant is close to my heart because it was my family's restaurant when I grew up.”

Whiting Brothers was a chain of 100 family-owned gas stations and motels on the route between Texas and California. They brought in visitors with advertisements for free ice. Sadly, little remains of many of the highway oases, including the ruins of the one in San Fidel, New Mexico. The only one still standing, and now being preserved, is in the town of Moriarty.

Perhaps these reminders of what Route 66 means to people will help it continue on for future travelers to enjoy.

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Caroline Eubanks is the author of This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States and a forthcoming title on the drinking history of her hometown. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Travel + Leisure, and Atlas Obscura.

Share your stories from Route 66! Whether a quirky roadside attraction, a treasured business, or a piece of family history, we are looking for your stories from this iconic highway.

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