Beyond The Route 66 Centennial

Beyond The Route 66 Centennial

It was an era of hand crank telephones, Model A Fords, and unprecedented economic collapse. The onslaught of the Dust Bowl that would transform families into refugees and prosperous communities into ghost towns was worsening. In 1931 more than 2,200 banks were shuttered and tens of thousands of people lost their savings, their homes, and their businesses. By January of 1932, unemployment had reached 40% in Michigan, and entire families were freezing to death or dying of starvation.

It was against this bleak and hopeless backdrop that Cyrus Avery and the visionaries of the U.S. Highway 66 Association campaigned for the highways paving. They were also fostering development of tourism marketing campaigns as they realized the economic importance of tourism, especially in struggling rural communities. Their first campaign commenced in 1927 with the branding of US 66 as the Main Street of America. In 1931 the association held a convention in Elk City, Oklahoma and the number of attendees was counted in the tens of thousands. The association was quick to seize upon the opportunity that was  the 1932 Summer Olympics that were to be held in Los Angeles, and on July 16 of that year an advertisement appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, inviting Americans to travel the “Great Diagonal Highway” to the games. In spite of the harsh economic conditions, within a week, the Association’s office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was overwhelmed with requests for information about Route 66, Los Angeles, and the Olympics.

Fast forward to the modern era. Tourism, especially with a Route 66 component, still represents an incredible economic opportunity. That can be exponentially magnified if it is linked to a communities unique attributes such as cultural or heritage sites, experiential opportunities, or ecotourism activities such as mountain biking. With the Route 66 centennial fast approaching, a community that taps into this historic event NOW can reap tremendous rewards all the way to 2026 and beyond.

Surprisingly, only a few communities have tapped into the international fascination with Route 66, and most of these have been content with simply letting the tourists come to them rather actively enticing them. A very rare number of Route 66 communities have managed to sell everything on the hog including the squeal and as a result, have been transformed into destinations. More often than not the marketing of the city as a destination, as a Route 66 community with an array of attractions, is anemic at best, even with a sizable budget. Grass roots initiatives operating behind the scenes become the driving force in towns such as this. This is the case with my adopted hometown of Kingman, Arizona.

Grassroots initiatives have been been the driving force behind the historic district renaissance. And now the city is beginning to assist rather than hinder. After the city’s tourism department failed to capitalize or even develop the Route 66 Walk of Fame that showed such promise, grassroots initiatives spearheaded by the Route 66 Association of Kingman took the lead in honoring the people that have played a key role in the transformation from highway to icon. When the city’s tourism department neglected to build on opportunities derived from initiatives that fostered development of a working relationship with international Route 66 associations, business owners and community leaders launched the Kingman Promotional Initiative. When the city’s tourism office chose to forego receptions for tour groups, media and Route 66 associations representatives, cooperative partnerships were formed to fill the void.

It was the study of the original US Highway 66 Association and their marketing campaigns, and my involvement with these grassroots initiatives in Kingman that led to the development of community education programs as a pilot project for Mohave Community College. And it was these classes which led to the development of a new presentation, Route 66 Dollars & Cents, a condensed version of the college program.

This October, I will be taking the show on the road. I am anxious to share lessons learned, to provide incentive and tools for building strong, effective grassroots initiatives that overcome apathy and complacency, and that foster development of cooperative partnerships. If this program is of interest to your organization or your community, please drop me a note as the travel schedule is being planned at this time.

I will close this out with a few points to ponder. Every community has marketable assets. If you make a community a place that people will want to visit, you make it a place where they will want to live, to raise families, to retire and to open businesses. Apathy, complacency and incompetence can trump a handful of assets. Passionate people armed with knowledge, partners, and leaders with vision can transform a community.

It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

The Powell Sport Wagon was but one manifestation of the Powell brothers innovative company.

It was an unusual idea; build a light duty pick up truck, and wagon, that looked like a car, that drove like a car, that could easily be maintained, and that could be sold, profitably, and for much less than a truck produced by a major manufacturer. To accomplish this Hayward and Channing Powell planned on resurrecting chassis from passenger cars acquired from salvage yards!

The Powell trucks and sport wagons introduced in 1952 were unique. There was nothing like them on the road, at least in appearance. Much like the motorized scooter and optional sidecar that Hayward and Channing Powell had manufactured since 1926, they were conceived as a product to meet the need of a limited and narrow market. Many businesses in the Los Angeles area that had need of a light delivery vehicle chose the locally manufactured Powell scooters as they had a reputation for durability. The Powell brothers were hoping to capitalize on that reputation as well as customer loyalty.

The first sport wagon utilized a Chevrolet passenger car chassis that was rebuilt from stem to stern, and boxy body of Powell design and manufacture. As the company geared up for limited production, the brothers decided to exclusively use 1941 to 1947 six cylinder Plymouth cars as the foundation. These chassis were selected because of wide availability, interchangeability of parts between Chrysler lines, an open drive shaft, and a superior brake system. By the time production commenced in 1954, the company was using Chrysler industrial engines as well as those from Plymouth, Dodge, and DeSoto cars. At the time all of this must have seemed like a good idea.

To Milton O. Reeves it seemed like a good idea at the time

The wagons and trucks both had a few very unique features. As an example there was a concealed tube built into the right rear fender that ran lengthwise. An option was a tube in the the left side as well. Advertisement noted that this was ideally suited for the carrying of fishing poles or rolls of blueprints. Gimmicks and the cutting of costs by using fiberglass front grille, wooden bumpers, sliding rather than rolling windows, and lift off tailgate simply weren’t enough to appeal to customers. Production commenced in October 1954, and ended by the summer of 1956. Eight hundred were produced. Try finding one of these today.

The history of the American auto industry is littered with similar stories that seemed like a good idea at the time. Case in point, the Octoauto and Sextoauto conceived by Milton O. Reeves, owner of the Reeves Pulley Company in Columbus, Indiana. His company had been modestly successful before he invented a variable speed transmission system (VST) and then it soared. As with many businessmen in the closing years of the 19th century, Reeves wanted to become a manufacturer of automobiles.

His first attempt was a “motocycle” in 1896 that he built as a means of showcasing his VST. The vehicle terrified neighbors, and this led Reeves to try two more good ideas. First, a muffler, perhaps the first automotive application of such a device. Second, in the hope that his vehicle wouldn’t terrorize horses, he bought a papier-mache horse that served as an advertisement for a blacksmith shop, and and applied the head to the car. In the years that followed Reeves developed a variety of interesting, albeit odd, automobiles.

Topping the list has to be the Sextoauto, a six wheeled beast built on a modified Stutz chassis. The Octoauto used an Overland but as Reeves quickly learned, even if there was a promise of improved ride and greater tire longevity, there simply was no market for a car with a 180-inch wheelbase, and a 248-inch overall length! For Reeves it had seemed like a good idea.

Over the years I too have had what seemed like a good idea at the time. At the time it seemed like a good idea to write a book about the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company. At the time it seemed like a good idea to drive the ’88 Ford Crown Victoria LTD Country Squire to Michigan (story for another day). At the time it seemed like a good idea to go to work for Juniper Mines (another story for another day). I bet you have a story or two to tell about what seemed like a good idea at the time.

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Hard Times

Hard Times

“By most accounts it was a surprisingly mild day in late March 1933 when McLean County sheriff’s deputy Charles Adams, accompanied by a DeWitt county deputy, went to the grocery store located at 1410 S. Main Street, Route 66, in Normal to arrest a suspect on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The suspect was also wanted for questioning about the robbery of a diner in Clinton. It should have been a simple, easy arrest.”

When the editor at Rio Nuevo Publishing approached me with a proposal to write a book about the dark side of Route 66, the idea intrigued me. In all that I do, be it books, presentations, podcasts, or walking tours, adding depth and context as well as historical perspective is a goal. Still, in the modern era Route 66 is viewed as an almost magical time capsule where only the remnants of good times are preserved. If the project was accepted I would be adding context and historical perspective, and tarnishing the romanticized image of a highway that has become an almost sacred place where the very best of America is enshrined.

Photo courtesy Joe Sonderman

Well, for better or worse the book is complete and pre-orders are now being accepted. And as been the case with the publication of the previous eighteen books, I can now begin worrying over content. I was fortunate to have a strong editorial team. Still, are there errors? Will the stories reopen old wounds? Will these stories from Route 66 and its predecessor, the National Old Trails Road, bring closure? Is it possible that these stories will solve decades old mysteries?

“By 1940, the era of the fast-driving roving bank-robbing gangs had passed. But Tulsa had grown into a bustling city, and cities had crime. In the early to mid-1940s the city faced something far more terrifying than an occasional murder, burglary, theft, or assault. There was a serial killer prowling the Brady Arts District a few blocks north of the Route 66 corridor.”

“Chester Comer, who often used the alias Jack Armstrong, was an itinerant oil field roustabout who never stayed in one place, or on a job, for long. His first wife, and possibly his first victim, was Elizabeth Childers of Oklahoma City. Initially identified and buried as a Jane Doe, she was shot five times in the head, and her body burned, near Kansas City, Kansas. Eighteen-year-old Childers was pregnant at the time of her death. Lucille Stevens, unaware of his first marriage, wed Comer in December 1934, four months after Childers went missing. A postcard with a McLean, Texas, postmark dated September 16 was her last correspondence with family. Comers killed her in the late summer of 1935, burned the body, and dumped it in the brush along the highway near Edmond.”

Joe Sonderman collection

In every book and feature article written I learn something new. My perspective of the past is changed as it is brought into sharper focus. With this book I developed a deeper understanding of hard times, of desperation, of how lawlessness can be nurtured and fostered, and the consequences of turning a blind eye to or making excuses for evil. With clarity this book illustrated the ripple affects of violence, and how a decision as simple as turning left instead of right can unleash a series of events that end in death and mayhem. To say the very least it was a sobering and fascinating project. It is my hope that readers will find value in it beyond simply adding depth to the Route 66 story.



The World Was A Different Place

The World Was A Different Place

This past Friday morning before the Adventurers Club Live program from Victoria’s Sugar Shack in Kingman, Arizona, Andy Sansom, archivist at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts surprised me with a gift, the temporary loan of four large external hard drives. I now need to find time to peruse more than a century of scanned newspapers from the Kingman area and other intriguing historic tidbits.

Contrary to what most of us learned in high school, history is not boring. Nor is it dead or irrelevant. History is what provides balance and perspective. Without the context of history how can you judge if this is the worst of times, or the best of times? How can you passionately claim that this president is the best, or worst, without a comparative study? Are you better off today than say people who lived in 1958? Are we as a nation addressing prejudice in a manner that is better or worse than our predecessors in 1970, 1950, or 1930? Is the political divisiveness worse today than it was in the election of 1800?

Looking at history with nothing more than the perspective of personal experience leads to a distorted view of the world. A perspective based solely on attendance of car shows would lead a person to think that the 1957 Chevy had been a popular car when new. Surprise! In 1957, Ford sold 1,676,448 vehicles. Chevrolet only sold 1,507,904 cars. Ford had an all new body style to offer while Chevy was trying to sell a face lifted model that had debuted in 1955. The popularity of the ’57 Chevy today is rooted in the fact that it was a popular used car for high school students and young adults in 1958, 1959, and 1960. Here is another shocker for you, during the economic years of 1957 and 1958, only American Motors was able to increase sales. Did you know that the Rambler Rebel was one of the fastest cars off the show room floor in 1957?

Route 66, like Elvis Presley, the ’57 Chevy, and Woodstock has morphed into a larger than life icon, a romanticized version of a perception. The old double six has become America’s longest theme park, a neon lit wonderland where the traveler can experience the best of the 1950’s. Only in a few rare instances will you find vestiges or reference to Route 66 as it was when it was promoted as The Main Street of America; a road where many travelers relied upon the Negro Motorist Green Book to ensure a safe trip, a highway where horrendous accidents gave it a reputation as “bloody 66,” and a road that people drove at night to avoid the scorching heat of the desert.

Old newspaper articles are snapshots, sepia toned images form a lost world. The world was a much different place in 1990, or 1900, and historians will look back on 2019 with a similar perspective. Thank you, Andy. I look forward to peeling back the calendar pages visiting the past. To plagiarize a bit of classic literature, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I suppose that that sums up life in general regardless of the year or where you live. That is but one of many lessons we can learn from history.

No Hill To Steep, No Sand To Deep

No Hill To Steep, No Sand To Deep

The 1913 Chevlon Canyon Bridge in Arizona, the first highway bridge built in the state.

Floyd Clymer’s obsession with all things automotive was not unusual for a young man during the first years of the 20th century. What was unusual was his entrepreneurial spirit made manifest in the establishment of a successful  automotive dealership before reaching his teens and inspiring exploits such as participating in a cross country race from Denver to Spokane with his older brother at age nine.

The period between 1885 and 1930 was an era of unprecedented transformation. Not a single aspect of American society was untouched. Swashbuckling entrepreneurs were building industrial empires by manufacturing what had not existed five years prior. The owners of electric taxi cabs and buses competed with the owners of horse drawn hansom cabs. As late as 1916 in northwestern Arizona, teamsters with 20-mule teams and drivers of stagecoaches shared the road with an ever growing number of “automobilists.” Geronimo, the legendary Apache warrior, was photographed in a Cadillac. Blacksmiths became auto mechanics and livery stables transitioned into auto dealerships.

Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiler of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.

In the late 19th century, the exploits of Buffalo Bill Cody chronicled in dime novels ignited the imagination of boys who dreamed of adventure on the western prairies. By the early 20th century Cody was the owner of a Michigan roadster, and a vocal member of the growing Good Roads movement. The boys with an adventuresome spirit were now young men who through their exploits with automobiles inspired a new generation. One of these young men was Floyd Clymer.

Clymer was born in 1895 but his family relocated to Berthoud, Colorado shortly after the turn of the century. In 1902, Clymer’s father, a doctor, purchased a one cylinder Curved Dash Oldsmobile, the first automobile in this frontier era mining camp. At age seven his father yielded to young Clymer’s persistent pleading and taught him to drive the Olds. In 1904,  Clymer and his younger brother participated in the first Reliability Run from Denver to Spokane, a grueling test of man and machine. Near destruction of the Flanders 20 thwarted the brothers successful completion of the race.

Incredibly, at age ten, with his fathers full support and financial backing, Clymer began buying and selling cars. His endeavor proved so successful that his father allowed his son to set up an office in what was formerly a dentist’s office and establish Berthound Auto Co. that specialized in Maxwell and Cadillac, and later REO cars. Needless to say, these manufacturers took notice when they learned that it was young Clymer, not his father, that sold twenty six vehicles in two years. Motor Field, an early publication for automobile enthusiasts, ran an article on Clymer, “the Kid Agent,” in their February 1907 issue.  Clymer shrewdly used the article as a sales pitch and claimed, “I can supply your wants in repairs and supplies, and can save you money.”  A man who sold everything on the hog including the squeal, Clymer later reprinted the entire issue after the magazine folded and sold copies for one dollar.

A few years later Clymer turned his attention to motorcycles and purchases a Yale and Thomas Auto-Bi, both manufactured in California. In 1912, he won his first amateur bike race in Boulder, Colorado. In 1916, he won the very first Pike’s Peak Hill Climb with an Excelsior. This endeavor led to an offer from Harley Davidson and Clymer becoming a member of the company’s factory racing team. Building on his fame, Clymer moved to Greeley, Colorado and opened up a shop to sell and service motorcycles.

The next chapter in the Clymer story was written in Denver when he established Floyd Clymer, Inc., the largest distributor of Indian, Excelsior and Henderson bikes in the western United States. This was followed by relocation to Los Angeles, purchasing Al Crocker’s West Coast Indian distributorship and the launching of a mail order parts business.

During World War II, Clymer launched a new business endeavor that was built on his collection of vintage automotive sales literature and photographs. Published in 1944, Floyd Clymer’s Historical Motor Scrapbook featured advertisements and period articles from two hundred fifty brass era vehicle manufacturers. With favorable reviews from publications such as Time, book sales exceeded expectations. This would serve as the foundation for what would become the largest publisher of automotive books.

In the 1960s, Clymer once again turned his entrepreneurial abilities toward motorcycles and established himself as a distributor of the German-built Munch Mammoth IV, a $4,000 motorcycle that he promoted and marketed as the “Ferrari of motorcycles.” During this period he also attempted to resurrect Indian motorcycles. The final page of the amazing Clymer story was written in 1970 when he succumbed to a heart attack.

It is human nature to seek adventure, even if it is through vicarious means. The recent “Storm Area 51” tsunami on social media networks is one example. A few, however, prefer to live the adventure and provide the inspiration for making the most of every day.

If this story piqued your interest I know you will enjoy my latest presentation, In The Beginning! I am now scheduling appearances for fall and winter.