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Gas up the car — the Missouri History Museum is getting its kicks with Route 66

Original story published June 23, updated June 30 with audio from "St. Louis on the Air."

Just in time for summer, the Missouri History Museum is taking a road trip down Route 66 with a colorful exhibit on the Mother Road that opens Saturday.

The focus is St. Louis’ place along the famous roadway that opened America’s West to cross-country motoring in 1926.  The ribbon of pavement stretched 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, touching eight states along the way. 

St. Louis was the largest city between here and there, and served as the Gateway to the West for drivers in Model A Fords, just as it had for pioneers in Conestoga wagons in the 1800s.

Curator Sharon Smith says the exhibit tells the story of roadside businesses that sprung up along the highway as it twisted its way through the heart of the city. They provided  basic needs for weary motorists.

“When you think about travel, you think about where we’re going to eat. Where we’re going to sleep. And we’re going to need to find places to get gasoline. That's as important today as it was when the road opened in 1926,’’ she said.

Surviving St. Louis legends get their due: See the first frozen custard machine used at Ted Drewes, and an old sign from Carl’s Drive In.

Listen to Missouri History Museum curator Sharon Smith discuss the role St. Louis played in the Route 66 story.

There are also lots of items and photographs of shuttered highway icons: A carhop’s uniform from the late, great Parkmoor restaurants. Furniture from the infamous Coral Court Motel. They mirror the fate of Route 66 haunts left behind as interstates bypassed Main Street America in the 1970s and 1980s.

The road was officially decommissioned in 1985.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Preservationists tried to save the Coral Court Motel, built in 1941. It took a walk on the seedy side before being demolished in 1995.

But it’s the neon that brings the museum gallery to life: vintage signs that once lured motorists to stop in for a burger -- there’s curbside service. Or, to rest for the night — in refrigerated air. The original sign from the La Casa Grande Motel on Watson Road is typical of the eye-popping flashiness. And adding elegance to all the glitz is the refurbished neon that once crowned the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.

“There are eleven neon signs in this exhibit and another four or five that are electrified signs. So, you’re going to see a lot of beautiful lights,” Smith said. “And it’s really reminiscent of how Route 66 would have looked back in the day.”

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Neon and electrified signs beckoned to weary travelers of Route 66.


Historical markers for Route 66 dot the city of St. Louis, marking various alignmentsof the highway through the years.

"Route 66 touched so many roads in St. Louis, it’s hard to name them all,’’ Smith said. “People will say, ‘Why is there a Route 66 sign on Lindell and another one on Watson?’ It’s because over time, the road changed. It was not destined to be down Manchester, it’s just that Manchester was the first road that was paved through St. Louis west so they used it because they needed a paved road. Then they hurried to get Watson Road paved because that was really the road they wanted to carry Route 66.”  

Amid the fun displays of memorabilia and classic cars — check out that 1963 Corvette Stingray — the exhibit delves into the history of the road: It’s beginnings in Springfield, Mo., 90 years ago and why the nation needed a Route 66. The highway’s evolution before World War II and the post-war migration to California afterward. A section on the rise of the family vacation features a vintage Airstream trailer.

Visitors will probably be familiar with the harsh tale of Oklahoma migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl, but might be surprised to learn about the Green Book — a road guide developed for African Americans navigating the highway during the Jim Crow era.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Route 66 helped give rise to America's car culture.

But the focus is local -- like the story of the Auto Club of Missouri.

“Because it was so important in those early years of paving roads and marking roads and setting the way people take care of their cars and have them registered. Licensing. All of those things that we sort of take for granted today, they happened because of the Auto Club of Missouri and its successors,” she said.  

Joe Sonderman of the Route 66 Association of Missourihas loaned photographs and items to the exhibit, which he expects to be a hit with fans of the road.

“It’s an easy way to get to know Route 66 without getting out and driving for hours,’’ he said. “It’ll make you appreciate what it meant to this city. It’s just as important as the river and it was just as important as any railroad because it carried every bit as much commerce. It brought tourists here, and it brought migrants here."

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

Sonderman says Route 66 is history that travelers can still see and touch. For him, it’s never been about the pavement.

“A lot of people they'll drive by these old places. They see the ruins, they think, well, that’s just an old dump of a gas station. Well, it’s not,’’ he said. “It’s the story of families that were trying to earn a living out here on this road. And one day the interstate comes through, and it’s all gone.”

The nostalgia of Route 66 lives on in American culture. John Steinbeck dubbed it “The Mother Road” in his 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the highway inspired beat poet Jack Kerouac. The road lent its name to a television series in the '60s, though many of the episodes were set elsewhere. And a new audience discovered Route 66 in "Cars," the 2006 Disney animated movie. Because much of the original pavement is intact, hundreds of travelers – many of them international -- still drive Route 66 as a vacation adventure, stopping at surviving roadside motels and eateries.

“As a city, we haven’t really spent as much time talking about Route 66 because there are many other things we have going on in St. Louis,’’ Smith said. “If you look at smaller towns along the road, they were made by Route 66, and when the interstates came in they fell apart.’’

The exhibit includes a Wurlitzer jukebox and 16 versions of Bobby Troup’s classic “Route 66” to help visitors “get their kicks.” The anthem was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946, but the recordings span the decades -- from Bing Crosby to the Rolling Stones to R.E.M.  to John Mayer. And, of course, hometown legend Chuck Berry.

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter at @MaryDLeonard.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

“Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis”

Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard, Forest Park

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday and Wednesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

When: The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through July 16, 2017

Opening weekend: Michael Wallis, a native St. Louisan who wrote Route 66: The Mother Road, will speak at 11:30 a.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday in the museum's Lee Auditorium.

How much: Free.

Information:  For a complete list of events, visit the Missouri History Museum website.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.
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