Contrary to popular belief, Route 66 is not the nation’s most
Courtesy Steve Rider collection
historic highway even though it was knit from the Santa Fe Trail, Beale Wagon Road, Wire Road, and Pontiac Trail. With the exception of the alignment through the Black Mountains in Arizona, the Painted Desert, parts of New Mexico, and the Ozarks in Missouri, it can’t even be considered an overly scenic highway. Most of the highways corridor between Chicago and Santa Monica is bordered by cornfields, feed lots, small farming towns, the featureless Texas Panhandle, worn at the heel urban corridors, and vast empty deserts.
However, from its inception in 1926, it has always had the best marketing and promotion. Less than six months after its certification, Cyrus Avery, a visionary businessman from Tulsa, spearheaded establishment of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and the creation of a marketing campaign that branded the double six as the Main Street of America.
The changing face of Galena
From 1926 into the mid 1960’s, U.S. 66 was woven into the very fabric of the nation; in 1939 with publication of The Grapes of Wrath, in 1946 when crooner Nat King Cole recorded a catchy ditty about getting your kicks on a highway signed with two sixes, and from 1960 to 1964 when Todd and Buzz took to the road in search of adventure in a popular television program entitled Route 66.
Officially U.S. 66 ceased to exist on June 27, 1985. That fact alone makes the Route 66 renaissance in the 21stcentury all the more amazing.
There are companies that specialize in Route 66 tours operating in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia, and New Zealand. There are also Route 66 associations in Japan, Canada, Brazil, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Norway, Belgium, France, Italy, the UK, and Germany. Next month the first European Route 66 Festival takes place in Germany, and plans are being developed for a New Year’s Eve Route 66 festival in Tokyo. The old double six may be more popular today than at any time its history.
Explaining this international popularity in the modern era is not easy. Route 66 in the 21stcentury is best described as a living, breathing time capsule where more than a century of American societal evolution is preserved. It is also America’s longest theme park, a place where the romanticized perception of an authentic American experience thrives. It is the crossroads of the past and future. In short, it is the most amazing highway in America, especially for those with a sense of adventure that believe the destination is never as important as the journey
Communities large and small are harnessing the international fascination with this storied old road as a catalyst for revitalization and development, often with rather dramatic results. In discussing this with Dale Oglesby, Mayor of Galena, Kansas, he noted, “To date, we have done some work on all of the route within our city, but a complete restoration has been accomplished on half of the downtown segment. Since that has been done, around 14 properties have changed hands. About 20 have undergone private funded rehabilitation. It was our version of the field of dreams. Build it, and you know the rest.
Property values have increased, sales tax revenues which have been somewhat flat for years see slow, steady annual increases. Tour groups that used to pass thru quietly now tromp up and down the streets, looking for unique items to send home, eat, or otherwise carry back home. Finally, one of the neatest things we have seen is that now we operate daily an INTERNATIONAL outreach. Folks from around the world stop by to experience our kindness, hospitality, and hopefully gain just a bit of inspiration from their American counterparts. We strive to give them a good old fashioned American experience in memories that we send back to their families, their local cities, and their country.”
In closing out our conversation he noted, “By the way, did I mention the impact this effort has had on virtually every resident that lives both in and around our city? Not only has the perception of our city been rewritten within our community and exposed in community pride, but the perception from around the area is that this is a happening place! Best thing we have ever done for public perception and community pride!”
To put this transformation into context, less than a century ago Galena’s population was near 30,000 people. In 2014 that population was 2,966 people, a 9.8% decrease just since 2000.
The cities infrastructure was beyond deplorable with few functioning street lamps, broken sidewalks, empty storefronts, and weed choked lots lining the Route 66 corridor. In a relatively short period of time the town has been transformed; new restaurants have opened, a surgery center was built, colorful murals hint of the renewed community spirit, pocket parks have replaced urban blight, and the city is a destination for a legion of international Route 66 enthusiasts.
Route 66 in the modern era is far more than a mere highway. It is an authentic American experience where mom and pop businesses thrive, the neon shines bright on Tesla charging stations, and the destination is never as important as the journey. It is an almost magical place where small town America made famous in Norman Rockwell prints still thrives.