The Matriarchs of the Mother Road
The typical images of Route 66, America’s most iconic road, are pretty standard: a neon sign, an open road without traffic, a quirky landmark, or a classic car parked at a classic diner. The road has been immortalized in song—from Nat King Cole to Depeche Mode. All that iconography focuses on the places, with lyrics ticking off town names like Gallup, New Mexico, and Oklahoma City.
But Katrina Parks is interested in the people of Route 66 and how they bring the places to life. Specifically, the women. “It was interesting to me that this American pop culture and historical icon hadn’t really been examined through the lens of women,” Parks said.
Parks, a documentarian and filmmaker, had encountered a few stories about white women on the famous road that runs 2,400 miles (give or take) from Chicago to Los Angeles. The stories she had heard weren’t particularly inclusive. Parks wanted to look behind the postcards of roadside attractions to learn about and tell the stories of the women of Route 66. The matriarchs of the Mother Road.
So, she made a three-part docuseries, Route 66: The Untold Story of Women on the Mother Road, which tells women’s tales through oral history—with the places as the supporting cast to the people—not the other way around.
Route 66 was an essential cross-country road when it was established in 1926 and was pivotal in westward migration during the Dust Bowl. (It was from that era that author John Steinbeck coined the term “Mother Road” after looking at Dorothea Lange’s photo Migrant Mother, in reference to Route 66, and the way in which the road provided a refuge for those looking to escape hard times.) When the Interstate highway system was created beginning in 1956, travelers and truckers increasingly opted for the speedier multi-lane thoroughfares and Route 66 started to fall out of favor. In 1985 it was officially decommissioned, meaning it was removed from the U.S. Highway System.
Today Route 66 is having a rebirth, due to many factors, including pop culture, traveler interest in Americana kitsch and the country’s history, and the popularity of road trips. Today about 85 percent of the original road is traversable, although some sections are not particularly well-marked. “It is a symbol of adventure, the open road, and the American dream,” Parks said.
Over the years, a number of organizations—in the United States and abroad—have come together to focus on Route 66. This includes associations in all 8 states through which the route travels that are dedicated to promoting and preserving Route 66, as well as the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program from the National Park Service.
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The National Trust’s Preserve Route 66 Initiative is providing targeted technical and financial assistance to help preserve and tell the stories of places along Route 66 that may have been overlooked in the past, including places associated with historically excluded communities. “The National Trust and the National Park Service lent a certain weight to the project,” Parks said. In addition to the grants, Parks said “the National Trust’s expertise in historic preservation has been really valuable.”
Efforts are underway to amend the National Trails System Act to designate a permanent Route 66 National Historic Trail in time for the Centennial anniversary of Route 66 in 2026. If that law is passed, as is expected, it will bring federal resources and support to help preserve and promote historic places along the route. Supporters believe the designation would help improve directional signage and foster more preservation efforts.
When Parks started her project, many of the women’s stories she had heard were from the waitresses in the iconic roadside diners. Their stories are included in Parks’ research, as are those of entrepreneurs, politicians, residents, and others. She used historical artifacts, original research, and interviews with women and their descendants to give a fuller picture of the role women played along Route 66. She underscored the experiences of Black and Latina women.
Many towns along Route 66 were sundown towns, meaning Black travelers—especially during the Jim Crow era— had to leave town before sunset. Parks documents the story of Alberta Ellis who helped Black travelers—and servicemen traveling in groups of both white and Black soldiers—by opening Alberta’s Hotel in Springfield, Missouri. Alberta’s Hotel was said to be a place where segregation didn’t exist, while surrounded by towns where it most certainly did.
She also introduced viewers to Elizabeth Threatt, a schoolteacher, who was one of the first Black women to receive a master’s degree and operated a gas station along the route. That business, which Threatt ran on her own after her husband died, is being renovated. The hope is that the Threatt Filling Station—a site that was listed on the America’s Most Endangered Historic Places List for 2021—will re-open as an interpretive center in Luther, Oklahoma in 2026, in time of the centennial of Route 66. The center will help tell the stories of Black travelers along the route.
Funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation has provided financial assistance for rehabilitation efforts as well as helped Parks conduct interviews with the Threatt family for the documentary, and she hopes that story will also turn into a longer film on its own.
Early supporters of Parks' documentary included the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, several state humanities’ councils, and a number of grants, including one from the Harley Davidson Foundation. The National Trust came in with two grants to help complete the film, including post-production work, and to screen the film in historic theaters along Route 66. The film series, which was created with the help of two non-profits, the Road Ahead Partnership and Cinefemme, has now been screened in most of the states that Route 66 runs through and on public television. It is also available for streaming and there are more in-person screenings planned.
And the work continues.
“No matter how many times I travel Route 66, every time I find a new story,” Parks said. So, her research and efforts to share those tales is not complete. Parks recently received a substantial grant from the Preserve Route 66 Grant Fund of the National Trust to develop a content guide, three lesson plans in English and Spanish, lesson plans in Navajo, and 10 virtual presentations about community storytelling—all to draw younger audiences to the Route 66 story.
Before Route 66: The Untold Story of Women on the Mother Road, Parks worked on a documentary about the Harvey Girls, women who worked as waitresses on the railroads starting in the 1880s. That work intersected well with her Route 66 work, both thematically and geographically. When Parks started the Mother Road project, she lived in Los Angeles, which is served by overnight rail service to Winslow, Arizona on Route 66. Because of her location, Parks has visited the Mother Road by train, car, and plane. No matter how visitors plan to drive, Parks recommends they take it slow. “You miss the essence of Route 66 if you’re always rushing from one place to the other,” she said.
“I think one thing that people are drawn to with Route 66 is the idea of personal interactions with people who they meet along the way. They want to return to the small-town America vibe that we’re missing from our culture where often things have become very homogenized," she said. “You need time and patience.”
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