The Angel of Route 66. That is a fitting moniker for the small town barber that transformed his home town, sparked a renaissance movement that transformed communities from Chicago to Santa Monica, and that has done it all with a smile, with passion, and with an honest desire to inspire by sharing an epic American story.
On November 11, 1926, the newly established United States Numbered Highway System was officially introduced. East-west highways were designated with even numbers, and north south highways. They were designated U.S. 2, 10, 70, 80, and 90. And one, originally signed as U.S. 60, was changed to U.S. 66.
Dawn of A New Era
Fast forward fifty years. The interstate highway system has replaced many of the old two lane highways. These roads are safer. They allow for faster travel. But they also contribute to the transformation of America into a generic nation.
Charles Kuralt, famous for his On The Road Series, succinctly summeed it up with just one sentence. “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.”
A quick review of highway fatalities in the 1950s illustrates the need for the interstate highway system. But that system, a necessary evil, proved the death knell for countless small businesses. It also transformed vibrant, thriving neighborhoods and even communities into ghost towns. Seligman, Arizona could have been one of those towns.
The Angel of Roue 66
Angel Delgadillo’s story was not unique. At least until 1978.
He was born in his family home a few blocks off Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona on April 19, 1927. During the Great Depression the Delgadillo family was able to stay in their home town as his father was a local barber, and Angel’s older brothers, Juan and Joe, played at dances in the towns along Route 66 in Northern, Arizona.
During WWII traffic along Route 66 in northern Arizona changed. Gas rationing slowed the flow of traffic, but military traffic flowed through town on Route 66 and the railroad. The sprawling Kingman Army Airfield was just ninety miles west along Route 66 near Kingman, Arizona.
After the war Angel decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He attended the American Barber College in Pasadena, California, a Route 66 community. He completed his apprenticeship in Williams, Arizona, tha last Route 66 community to be bypassed by the interstate highway. In 1950, Angel opened his barber shop in Seligman. It was in the same building where his his father had opened his shop and a pool hall on Route 66 in 1922.
In 1972, relocated his barbershop to a location along the realignment of Route 66. Accompanying the move was his father’s 1926 barber chair, and three pool tables to the new location. It proved to be a prosperous venture as Seligman was a boom town fueled by a stream of traffic that numbered in the thousands which flowed through town daily on Route 66.In a recent interview Angle reflected on how on some days he would have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to cross the street to walk home from work.
Dawn of The Renaissance
Then on September 22, 1978 the stream of cars completely stopped. The newly constructed Interstate 40 had opened just two miles south of town. Angel’s barber shop and all the other businesses in Seligman suffered a precipitous decline in business.
Seligman wasn’t alone. Author Joe Sonderman in Route 66 In Arizona noted that, “Motels thrived much longer than in many Route 66 communities because Holbrook (Arizona) was not bypassed until 1981. After the interstate opened 45 businesses closed in one year.”
But what made Seligman unique was Angel Delgadillo, the man that was honored on July 27, 2023 with the unvieling of the The Angel of Route 66 Exhibit at the Powerhouse Visitor Center in Kingman, Arizona.
As Angel tells the story, he and his brother were driving home from Flagstaff when Juan noticed that there was only one noting that Seligman was a few miles ahead. This infuriated Angel. And so he created diagrams that he presented at a metting with the Arizona highway deparment. That was the beginning.
Angel had fond memories of Route 66. And he knew that he was not alone. And so he began giving thought on how to have the State of Arizona designate Route 66 an historic highway. But even in Seligman, there seemed to be little interest in the idea.
But Angel and Vilma, and his wife persisted. They drove Route 66 to Kingman and talked with business owners along the way. Their passion proved infectious.
On February 18, 1987, Angel called a meeting at the Copper Cart restaurant with a goal of creating an organization to promote a Historic Route 66. At that historic meeting Angel and fifteen other people from along Route 66 in northwest Arizona established the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. It was the truly the dawn of a new era. It was the beginning of a tsunami that would spread throughout the world.
Angel never rested on his laurels. He met with travelers advocated and gave interviews. His barbershop in Seligman became a destination for legions of international Route 66 enthusiasts. He became the face of the Route 66 renaissance.
On July 27, 2023, The Angel of Route 66 Exhibit was unveiled at the Powerhouse Visitor Center in Kingman, Arizona. Angel Delgadillo cut the ribbon on this exciting state of the art interactive exhibit during an event attended by journalists, dignitaries, and Delgadillo’s family.
The project utilizes StoryFile to create an interactive multimedia display that allows visitors to ask a virtual Angel questions about Route 66 and his life, with a response given in real time. StoryFile is an interactive technology used for interviewing people even when they aren’t present that has been used to preserve the story of Holocaust survivors. It has also been used in prestigious institutions.
To create Angel’s story, a video crew spent several days in Seligman and recorded more than eighteen hours of interviews with Angel. The exhibit was designed by Wade Bray, VP of Creative Services at SRO Productions, Inc. Bray is also the creator of the annual AAA Route 66 Road Fest in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In addition to the interactive display, the exhibit includes historic photos and artifacts, and a vintage barber chair exactly like one in Angel’s original barber shop. “We really wanted the exhibit to be the next best thing to visiting Angel’s Barbershop and Gift Shop in Seligman and meeting Angel in person. We hope the exhibit helps more visitors get the ‘Angel Experience’ where visitors leave touched and inspired by this unique experience highlighting a one-of-a-kind individual” says Nikki Seegers with the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona.
This video of the ribbon cutting ceremony was prepared by Jim Hinckley’s America.