The year was 1946. Nat King Cole blasted the airwaves with “Route 66,” a hit on both Billboard’s rhythm and blues and pop charts. While many will always remember it as the year the hit song written by Bobby Troup told America where to get their kicks, 1946 was also the 20th anniversary of the Mother Road itself, Route 66.
As automobiles became more commonplace throughout the United States, concerns over roadways prompted discussions among leaders from local groups to the federal government. At the time, most of the roads leading from one large city to another were unpaved, filled with holes and very little organization. Due to the lack of organization, roads often dead-ended without notice, a burden on those brave enough to drive cross-country. As the federal government ordered a highway system put into place, a few entrepreneurs envisioned a stretch of road connecting Los Angeles to Chicago. But from its birth, the most vital spot on its route would be Springfield, Missouri.
John T. Woodruff was a prominent Springfield entrepreneur and developer and former St. Louis attorney. Responsible for much of Springfield’s growth, Woodruff was a forward thinker. In the early 1920’s he brainstormed with Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, chairman of the Oklahoma Highway Commission, and came up with a highway that stretched more than two thousand miles, and just so happened to cross through both Tulsa and Springfield’s business districts. Oddly enough, arguments arose not over the road itself, but what to name it.
Originally, the road from L.A. to Chicago was destined to be Route 60, but Kentucky’s governor persuaded federal highway officials instead to give the designation to a major highway running through his state. Avery and the Missouri State Highway Commission Chief Engineer A. H. Piepmeier declined the designation of Route 62, claiming they would take nothing other than 60. Ever the forward thinker, Woodruff invited both men to a meeting in Springfield on April 30, 1926. One of the men noticed how catchy “66” sounded, and both Avery and Woodruff knew it was something they could promote. A telegram was immediately sent to the officials, stating that they would accept Route 66 as the name for the new stretch of highway. On November 11, 1926, the Secretary of Agriculture approved the route, and the iconic Route 66 was officially born.
As much a part of American nostalgia as baseball and drive-ins, Route 66 became the ultimate road trip. Restaurants, mercantiles, and motels popped up along its route, allowing economic growth in small towns that might have otherwise been lost in obscurity. A different culture blossomed with the open road in the 1940’s, creating a need for more convenience stores and campgrounds for traveling families. Springfield’s own Red’s Giant Hamburg(er) provided hungry Americans with the first drive-through restaurant in 1947 and served customers for close to forty years.
But before Route 66 was a road trip destination, it was a road to recovery. Unemployed men during the Great Depression found work paving the highway’s path. The road was completed in 1938, roughly a year before the start of World War II.
But like most pieces of Americana, time has a way of replacing them. In the case of Route 66, it was slowly left behind for four-lane highways. In 1984 the final piece of Route 66 was bypassed, and the entire route was decommissioned a year later. But many still hold tight to this piece of American history, traveling the forgotten path, piecing together the remnants that history left behind. And there’s nowhere better to celebrate the Mother Road than in Springfield—be it coming for the annual Route 66 Festival or spending a night at the Rail Haven, a vintage Route 66 motel where Elvis stayed after performing in Springfield in 1956. Springfield is the place to get your kicks on Route 66.