Route 66 enthusiasts from New Zealand gather in the showroom at Dunton Motors in Kingman, Arizona, to listen to author and historian Jim Hinckley. (Judy Hinckley)
A quick glance at the guest books in cafes, museums, parks and diners, as well as the registration at motels between Chicago and Santa Monica leave little doubt that Route 66 is more than a mere highway.
Peruse the reports on visitor numbers provided by Pontiac, Kingman, or Clinton and it is easy to see why Route 66 is often referred to as America’s longest attraction.
Literally tens of thousands of travelers from throughout the world and the United States travel this iconic old highway every year in search of an authentic American experience.
None of this, however, adequately explains why a highway that officially ceased to exist more than three decades ago is so popular. Nor does it present an accurate picture about what Route 66 has become after ninety years, what it is becoming, and the implications of its popularity.
Route 66 is not the nations most historic highway, or its most scenic. However, from its inception it has always had the best press and publicity. It also had passionate people to promote it and to preserve it, colorful characters to give it a memorable sense of vibrancy, and people who saw the opportunities it presented.
Members of the Czech Route 66 Association stop in Kingman, Arizona.
This is not to say that the nature of Route 66 hasn’t changed in nine decades. In the 21st century, those people are as likely to speak Dutch or German as they are English.
There has been another change since U.S. 66 debuted in 1926, and this one is societal. In the modern era of photographs shared instantly with friends, social media, smart phones, and a creeping sense that the world is a much, much smaller place resultant of the Internet, there is an impersonal feel to life.
On Route 66, however, it is still 1968, or 1952, or 1936. The motel isn’t part of a franchise, it is a family run operation where the owners remember you on a second or third visit, and will assist with a vehicle repair, or will provide a lift to the store.
Angel Delgadillo and Peter Cambell-McBride of the UK Route 66 Association
On Route 66 the same family has provided service to locals and travelers alike for generations at the restaurant or diner on the corner. It was founded by an immigrant from Germany or Greece or the Netherlands.
In some instances, a new generation has refurbished a classic diner or restaurant, or transformed an ancient bank into a uniquely styled cafe, and is making memories for Route 66 enthusiasts young and old.
Gatherings of enthusiasts at events or festivals in Kingman, Arizona or Cuba, Missouri or Edwardsville, Illinois or in Ofterdingen Germany or at de Prael in Amsterdam become a family reunion. Memories are shared, trips are planned, and assistance is given.
What makes Route 66 special? What sets it apart from any other highway? It is the people. It is the people you meet along the way, and the friends you make. It is the memories made and the people you share them with. It is the folks that you help, and the folks who help you. It is the adventure, the adventure inspired, and the adventure shared.
Route 66 is not a mere highway, it is an experience. It is the best of Mayberry and Norman Rockwell prints. It is America at its finest. It is a magical place that transcends barriers of language or culture. It is a grand adventure.
The posting for Thursday, May 26, 2016, is a bit different than our usual fare. It is a series of public service announcements thinly wrapped in a bit of shameless self promotion.
First on the list, a reminder. The Holbrook Route 66 Festival scheduled for the weekend of June 10 is an event that should be added to the calendar and circled in red.
Aside from the iconic Wigwam Motel, and the delightful Globetrotter Lodge as well as Joe and Aggie’s Cafe, for the most part Holbrook is overlooked by enthusiasts. This event provides an excellent opportunity for exploring the historic old town.
Where else will find old saloons on Bucket of Blood Street or something as interesting as the territorial era jail in the basement of the old Navajo Courthouse?
As a bonus, the fun filled weekend event includes the Route 66 relics tour, a very rare opportunity to explore the segment of Route 66 that traverses the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert with a National Park Service archaeologist as your guide.
On Friday evening I will be making my “Armchair Tour of Route 66” presentation.
A similar presentation will be made on Friday evening, October 14, at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri. This presentation will be sponsored by Belmont Winery (try the pink dogwood wine) and the Wagon Wheel Motel. This presentation will serve as the kick off for the Cuba Fest festivities.
Cuba Fest is a favorite event of ours. It blends the essence of a quintessential small town fall festival that adds to the Norman Rockwell feel of the town with the very essence of a Route 66 celebration.
The following Sunday another presentation on the 90 year history of Route 66 will be made at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park at St. Louis.
Discussions are underway for a presentation to be made at the 90th anniversary festival in Los Angeles. That will be around November 11.
Then there is the first European Route 66 Festival, and a conference of Route 66 associations that will take place in Ofterdingen Germany on the weekend of July 15. In addition to making a presentation about Route 66 with an emphasis on Arizona, I will be providing signatures for any books that folks bring to the festival.
Recently, as an outgrowth of my recent involvement with developments in Kingman, with the Route 66: The Road Ahead Initiative, and my work as a marketing consultant for Ramada Kingman and Grand Canyon Caverns, a new wrinkle in the Jim Hinckley story unfolded; speaking on the Route 66 renaissance as a catalyst for revitalization and economic development. Most recently I accepted a request from the Needles Chamber of Commerce.
And now, the sales pitch. If I may be of service in your community, or for an event or fund raiser, please, drop a note and we can discuss details.
Transportation, not gold or silver, was the cornerstone for Kingman, Arizona, a dusty desert town immortalized in a little ditty performed by Nat King Cole.
It began with a Native America trade route that connected the tribes along the coast of California with the Zuni, the Hopi, and the tribes along a chasm that we know today as the Grand Canyon. Father Garces followed that trail during his explorations in 1776, and camped at the oasis latter named Beale Springs.
A few intrepid explorers such as Francois Xavier Aubry, a French Canadian adventurer of legendary stature in the mid 19th century followed in the footsteps of Garces, and following him came a legion of American military surveyors, engineers, and soldiers. One of these was a naval officer whose adventures and exploits had become legendary.
Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale had been present with the mission from Washington D.C. when the Republic Texas of became a United States Territory. He had served as a spy in Great Britain as disputes over the Oregon Territory simmered, and had personally delivered confirming evidence of the California gold rush to the president of the United States after an arduous and dangerous crossing of the Isthmus of Panama.
In 1857 he accepted an assignment from President James Buchanan to survey a road from Fort Defiance in the Territory of New Mexico to Fort Mohave on the Colorado River. The second part of this assignment, determine the feasibility and viability of camel caravans for the use of military supply transport in the deserts of the southwest, emanated from Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War.
Courtesy Steve Rider
The Beale Wagon Road would latter be extended further east from the Territory of New Mexico, but by the early 1880’s, the road was being replaced by the railroad. Beale, and the railroad, depended heavily on the waters of Beale Springs. So did the fledgling railroad construction camp named Shenfield.
In short order the railroad reached the Colorado River, construction stretched deep into the Mojave Desert and the railroad camp now called Kingman (named for Lewis Kingman, a railroad location engineer), became the hub at a web of prosperous mining camps and ranching empires.
Fast forward to the dawn of the 20th century. The last major gold rush in Arizona had given rise to Gold Road and Oatman, Kingman was thriving as the areas center of trade and commerce, and a new breed of tourist dubbed the automobilist fueled establishment and development of service industries.
Funneling tourist into the Territory of Arizona was a Trail to Sunset that connected Chicago to the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway at Yuma. In 1912, the National Old Trails Highway incorporated this pioneering “highway” into the course followed from Maryland to California.
It was a group of businessmen from Kingman led by Tom Devine, proprietor of the Hotel Beale, accompanied by business owners from Needles, California, that changed the course of transportation history in Kingman. They attended the 1913 National Old Trails Highway convention and made a powerful presentation about the merits of rerouting this road across northern Arizona, and through the Mojave Desert.
In 1914, the National Old Trails Highway, and Kingman, got quite a promotional boost. The last of the Desert Classic races derisively dubbed the Cactus Derby followed the road from Los Angeles to Ash Fork before turning south toward Phoenix, and the list of headline grabbing drivers included Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield.
In 1926, the National Old Trails Highway across western Arizona and through Kingman received a new designation resultant of its incorporation into the recently created U.S. Highway system – U.S. 60, U.S. 66 after November 1926.
The rest, as they say, is history. U.S. 66 gave way to I-40, which will soon be joined by I-11. Route 66 faded and then underwent a renaissance that is fueling a rather dramatic transformation in communities large and small, including Kingman.
There may have been gold in them thar hills but it was the trails, the rails, the asphalt ribbon and the change in travelers pockets that transformed a dusty railroad construction camp into a destination for legions of international travelers.
Did you know that Route 66 has a Hollywood connection beyond the fact that it passes beneath the world famous hillside sign? Name a community large or small along the Route 66 corridor and there is a very good possibility that it has a Hollywood or at least celebrity connection.
As an example, Meteor Crater, and Meteor City, make an appearance in Damnation Alley, a very forgettable apocalyptic thriller that starred a few big celebrities. Starring Jeff Bridges, Starman was another major motion picture that included scenes shot at Meteor City.
On more than a few occasions I have noted the city of Kingman’s starring role in some major motion pictures such as Edge of Eternity and Foxfire, and Buster Keaton’s Go West filmed in 1925 on Tap Duncan’s Diamond Bar Ranch. I have also noted a few other Hollywood connections such as the marriage of Clark Gable and Carol Lombard in 1939.
These, however, are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Route 66 is signed as Andy Devine Boulevard in Kingman. During construction of Port Kingman for TAT Airlines, Charles Lindbergh was a regular guest at the Hotel Beale. Oprah Winfrey stopped at Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner for lunch.
The Chicago Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates in Kingman on April 1, 1924. In the first episode of season six of the Soprano’s, Tony Soprano mistakenly obtains a drivers license with a Kingman, Arizona address.
Mickey Mantle had an association with three Route 66 communities. He grew up in Commerce, Oklahoma and in nearby Baxter Springs, Kansas, he played ball for the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids. His first financial compensation came while playing shortstop for the minor league Joplin Miners.
Sapulpa, Oklahoma has a Gene Autry connection. Did you know that he worked as a telegrapher in that city for the Frisco Railroad, or that performing at area dances with a friend from the railroad was the beginning of his musical career?
Diminutive Vinita, Oklahoma, home of Clanton’s Cafe, has two claims to fame. Phillip Calvin McGraw, AKA Dr. Phil, was born in this city on September 1, 1950.
The namesake for the town is Lavina “Vinnie” Reams. Reams was a renowned sculptor in the late 19th century. Her most famous work is the life sized statue of Abraham Lincoln that stands in the rotunda of the capital building in Washington D.C.
Abraham Lincoln is undoubtedly the most famous person associated with Springfield, Illinois. His home is mere blocks from the old double six, and his presidential library is on the highway itself. However, did you know that this was the hometown of film star Leslie Farrell, star of Snow White and the Three Stooges?
At the intersection of Kendall Drive, City 66, and Cajon Boulevard, U.S. 66, in San Bernardino, on November 19, 1954, singer Sammy Davis Jr. was involved in a horrific automobile accident. Even though he eventually recovered from injuries sustained, the accident resulted in the loss of his left eye.
Have I roused your curiosity yet? If so, I will be sharing these and other stories from the most famous highway in America during my Armchair Tour of Route 66 presentations this year.
The first of these will take place at the Route 66 Festival in Holbrook on the weekend of June 9. In October, presentations are scheduled for Cuba Fest in Cuba, Missouri (third weekend of the month), and at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis immediately afterwards.
For a complete schedule of appearances simply register today for free updates from Jim Hinckley’s America, or stay tuned for details. And if you would like to schedule an appearance for your event or fund raiser, please drop me a note.
Just one of the many movies filmed along Route 66.
If I were to peg a time when it first began, it would be several years ago shortly after the publication of Ghost Towns of Route 66. First there were requests for interviews from local media, from radio stations in New Zealand, as well as from folks at Frommer’s and other major travel programs. On the heels of the interviews were invitations to speak on the popularity of Route 66 and ghost towns in general. Then I penned The Route 66 Encyclopedia followed by volume two, The Illustrated Route 66 Historic Atlas. In the latter I included a section on crime scenes and disaster locations, as well as celebrity associated sites.
It soon became quite obvious that I wasn’t alone in my fascination with the empty places, or the curiosity about the places where Sammy Davis Jr. lost his eye in an auto accident on Route 66 in the Cajon Pass or the course of the Santa Fe Trail along the pre-1937 alignment of Route 66 in New Mexico.
For reasons unknown, the interviews came easy. Even sitting with Jay Leno in his garage didn’t lead to excessive drinking to settle the nerves.
The presentations that placed me as the focal point of attention, however, were another matter. Public speaking was not exactly something that I felt overly comfortable with.
However, much to my surprise, the response received indicated that, with the exception of a most memorable presentation in the Netherlands plagued by equipment failure and technical difficulties, people thought that I was relaxed and polished.
Fast forward a couple of years. When the Route 66 Association of Kingman asked me to make a presentation in January of this year at a fund raising event for their neon sign initiative, I decided to create something special to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Route 66
So, a series entitled an Armchair Tour of Route 66 was born. This was more than a mere slideshow, it was a virtual tour of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, and from inception to the era of renaissance.
Using photos taken by my dearest friend and I, and historic images provided by Mike Ward, Steve Rider, and Joe Sonderman, I wove a travel narrative that included the lighter side of mayhem and disaster and a few celebrity sightings with stories of community revitalization, stilt walking French mimes, a modern generation of roadside personalities worthy of Rimmy Jim Giddings, and ghost towns.
Courtesy the Steve Rider collection.
I am quite pleased to say that the initial presentation was very well received. More than $1,200 was raised for the association.
Even better, folks unfamiliar with the Route 66 phenomena, the highways renaissance, its colorful history, or its vibrant international culture stayed to ask questions and talk about making a road trip or two.
Now we are taking the show on the road. On June 4, I have accepted a request to make a special presentation at the Grand Canyon Caverns.
On June 10, I am honored to be playing a supporting role in Holbrook’s Route 66 Festival by making a presentation on Friday evening.
In mid July, it will be my pleasure to make a presentation at the first European Route 66 Festival in Ofterdingen, Germany. On the third weekend in October, we will be at Cuba Fest, in Cuba, Missouri, always a delightful event. The same weekend I will make a presentation at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park at St. Louis, and the following day, a special presentation for a school group. Interesting times indeed.
If you would like to liven up a festival, event, or fund raiser with tales of comedic mayhem, disasters, topless celebrities, Edsel Ford, and Dutch born restaurant owners in a bypassed Illinois farm town, drop me a note.