The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma, a stop on our fall tour.
For a brief moment in time it was designated U.S. 60. But by the time that signs had been placed along the highway that connected Chicago to Los Angeles a political compromise had given it a new identity – U.S.66.
Exactly when Route 66 morphed from highway to icon can’t be pinpointed with certainty. But from its inception this highway billed as the Main Strret of America and the Mother Road has benefitted from brilliant marketing campaigns, being profiled in books, and being linked to the Olympics, to movies, and to television programs. And that is one reason it is, perahps, more popular today than at any time in its history even though it doesn’t officially exist.
That is also why the fast approaching centennial in 2026 offers communities along that highway corridor, both large and small, with unprecedented promotional opportunities. And in turn this can result in tourism related economic development as well as historic district revitalization opportunities.
Many states bisected by Route 66 including Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma recognized the opportunity quite sometime ago. They formed Route 66 centennial commissions, initiated programs to bolster tourism in the years leading to the centennial, and developed an array of diverse cooperative partnerships. Those endeavors are already paying dividends.
Meanwhile, surprisingly, there are still a few communities that yet to launch centennial initiatives. But, to be honest, some communities along Route 66 only make a half hearted effort to capitalize on assets ideally suited for tourism development. Meanwhile towns like Pontiac, Illinois and Tulsa, Oklahoma are selling everything on the hog including the squeal. Other towns such as Tucumcariand Springfield, Missouri are on the fast track to tapping into this potential goldrush.
It is difficult to find words that adequately describe what makes a Route 66 odyssey special or unique. I have explored a number of old highways, most recently U.S.6. These old highways are peppered with an array of living time capsules. But they lack the infectious magic.
Route 66 is no mere highway. It is the ultimate American road trip. But there is more to this story. It is also the American experience personified. It is opportunity limited only by the imagination, and adventure without equal.
Yesterday’s episode of Coffee With Jim, the audio podcast developed by Jim Hinckley’s America, is example of what makes a Route 66 experience unique. And it is also an example of why I am starting to think that the centennial year will be a 2,200 mile block party of epic proportions.
When you listen to the passion that owner Beth Hilburn has for the Hi Way Cafe near Vinita, Oklahoma, it is hard not to get excited. And when you listen to her families work to use the cafe to build a sense of community, and her story about the cafes fascinating origins, it is impossible to not be inspired.
Pontiac in Illinois is a town where the lick and promise approach isn’t good enough, and it shows. Photo Jim Hinckley’s America
The articles are a few years old, and the downturn in tourism that resulted from COVID related restrictions blunted the near vertical growth in tourism, but the evidence is still valid. “Atlanta (IL), sales tax revenue jumped 43 percent last year during the peak tourism season of April to August compared to four years ago.” From Waynesville, Missouri, “The city’s sales-tax revenue rose 7 percent last year.” Similar stories can be found about Pontiac, Illinois, Williams, Arizona, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A simple Google search shows similar results in a number of Route 66 communities over the course of the past ten years. Further research indicates that the success in each of these communities has several common denominators.
Leadership that builds cooperative partnerships, that inspires and that educates. Leadership with vision. Capital investment by city government in historic district infrastructure to enhance a pedestrian friendly environment and beautification to make the area more inviting for visiotrs as well as investors. An understanding that tourism is not just heads in beds.
As Bill Thomas of the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership is fond of saying, “Not all economic development is tourism. But all tourism is economic development.” And a key component of tourism is a city that has invested in its future by ensuring that it is inviting to tourists as well as potential new residents or business owners.
Generally I discuss these things in generalities as they are issues that many communities deal with. Today I need to be more direct in the hope that my adopted hometown of Kingman will serve as an example on how to transform the city into a destination rather than as an example of how a community with tremendous potential can languish.
Opportunity is knocking in Kingman, again. I use the term again because we are on the cusp of repeating past mistakes. The past has value but only if we learn from mistakes made. To dwell on the past, to be paralyzed by prior mistakes is counter productive. Put simply, you can’t put crap back in the donkey.
The city has invested in a comprehensive study and funds have been allocated for the Downtown Infrastructure Design Project. The point of contention is that some folks are of the opinion that monies should be diverted to street repairs.
Street repairs are needed. And they will be needed again in two years, in five years and in a decade. But there is overwhelming evidence that investment in a project such as this will serve as a catalyst for long term economic development. And in turn that generates revenues need for street repair and other services.
I am optimistic. This time there is unified support for moving the transformative project forward. The Kingman Area Chamber of Commerce has launched a petition in support, and the passionate volunteers from Kingman Main Street have been working tirelessly to educate the community about the potential benefits. The Route 66 Association of Kingman Arizona has announced their support.
Now, let’s just hope that I can make a positive and enthusiastic report after the next city council meeting.
A 3,900 mile road trip through the heartland. Visits with old friends. The loss of a few friends. The making of new friends. A visit with Jay Leno. Opportunities to tell people where to go, and to share America’s story. A dream project made manifest after six years of effort. A National Road Trip Day celebration that was historic, at least for me. The launch of a new podcast. The publication of my 21st and 22nd book. Delays and frustrations with The Beast (the 1951 Chevy panel truck). These were a few of the high and low points of 2022.
I have never been a fan of the New Year’s resolution. I am, however, a fan of looking back on a year. That gives me insight about what needs to be fixed or improved so I can make new mistakes rather than repeat old ones. It also provides balance and perspective. And that in turn provides a foggy glimpse of the year to come. With this reflection and evaluation comes a blend of excitement, eager anticipation, and a hint of apprehension.
The excitement and eager anticipation about the new year was fueled by the past few weeks. For the first time since the dawning of the apocalypse we resumed our December book signing at Auto Books Aero Books, a venerable old store that opened its doors in the 1950s. And just like old times Jay Leno popped in for a quick visit.
Discoveries made in small town America, a highlight of 2022
About two weeks ago I received an unexpected email. It was from a cousin not talked with since 1974! But what made that note and the subsequent phone call even more surprising was that I had been informed years ago that he had passed away.
Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with Stephanie Stuckey, CEO of Stuckey’s, the classic roadside business famous for pecan logs, and a board member with the Society for Commerical Archeology. We had met at the Miles of Possibility Conference where she was the keynote speaker. At that time I had shared information about the new innovative self guided, narrated historic walking tourin Kingman, Arizona that had been developed by Kingman Main Street and invited her to Kingman for a guided tour.
The walking tour project had first been proposed after an interesting presentation about QR codes at the 2014 International Route 66 Festival in Kingman. Selling the idea took more time than the fund raising, research and development of phase one.
Apathy. A lack of leadership and vision. Factions. Failure to build cooperative partnerships. These were just a few of the obstacles that we had to overcome to transform an idea into a reality.
The issues encountered with this project aptly illustrate why some communities with limited resources or attractions successfully utilize tourism as a catalyst for economic development and historic revitalization, and others with nearly unlimited opportunity languish. That was the focal point of my presentation at the Miles of Possibility Conference.
And in 2022, for the first time since 2019 we embarked on an epic odyssey of nearly 4,000 miles through the heartland. Aside from visiting old friends and speaking at the Miles of Posibility Conference in Pontiac, Illinois, and we did some research and exploration along Route 66 as well as in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas.
To plagiarize a bit of classic literature, that trip was the best of times, and it was the worst of time. Issues with renting car, a new reality, an injury sustained by my dearest friend, soaring gas prices, and a nightmare motel experience in Russellville, Arkansas are counted among the low points.
Highlights included discovering new restaurants, motels, museums and highways that we can recommend. There were some long overdue reunions with friends. We met some interesting people, were introduced to some new ideas and technologies, and had the opportunity to tell people where to go as well as share America’s story. And just as with BC (before COVID) era, there was ample opportunity to start booking engagements for the new year.
With few exceptions 2022 was a good year for the Jim HInckley’s America team. As always there was room for improvement, and that is one reason I evaluate the old year as a new one dawns.
So, here we are on the cusp of a new year filled with new opportunities. Are you excited?
The historic El Garces depot and Harvey House in Needles, California is a blank slate.
The monthly meetings organized by Mohave County Economic Development and Tourism are always fascinating. Aside from opportunities for networking, to learn about regional tourism developments and to build cooperative partnerships the meetings also foster a greater awareness about area history.
Yesterday’s meeting in Needles, California included a tour of the historic El Garces complex and the Needles museum. Our knowledgable guide shared the history of the building and Needles, and he also provided some personal history. His family’s association with Needles began with his grandmother, a Harvey Girl at the El Garces.
Named for Father Francisco Garces, a Franciscan missionary that explored the area with the DeAnza expedition in the 1770s, the El Garces opened in 1908. Indicative of its size, a walk around the circumference of the building on the upper mezzanine was more than one mile.
Aside from stylish lobby and dining room, there were sixty four rooms for guests and the Harvey Girl staff. The searing summer heat was tempered with an innovative system that was linked to the nearby ice plant that produced 300 pound blocks for the cooling of produce being shipped by rail.
Aside from the railroad, the hotel and restaurant served travelers on the National Old Trails Road and the first alignment of Route 66. These roads passed in front of the El Garces as they circled the plaza.
During WWII the El Garces and Needles boomed. The hotel and depot complex was a stop for troop trains. It was also used by the command of the Desert Training Center, the largest military training area in the history of military maneuvers. During this period General Patton was a frequent guest.
Route 66 in Needles, California as seen from the El Garces mezzanine Joe Sonderman collection
The hotel closed in 1949. But as Needles was an important center for Santa Fe Railroad operations, the building was used until 1988. A section at the east end of the complex was razed to create a parking lot for railroad employees. After years of abandonment and vandalism it was slated for demolition. A last minute reprieve came with formation of Friends of the El Garces, and acquisition of the property and Santa Fe Park by the City of Needles.
Aside from some original tile flooring, the building is largely just a shell with new windows and doors. There is an excellent conference room, and rooms available to rent for events. Increasingly it is booked for weeks at a time. In February the Route Info Fair will take place at the El Garces.
The El Garces figures prominently in the history and development of Needles. Now it is figuring prominently in the city’s future.
This meeting was the kick off for the second phase of my annual fact finding tour. Phase one was the trip east to the Miles of Possibility Conference, and meetings with tourism officials in various Route 66 communities. It will continue with a trip to the Los Angeles area.
Cooperative partnerships are key to community development and revitalization. They are also instrumental in the transformation of a region or community into a destination. I am eagerly looking forward to the meeting series in 2023, to moving projects toward fruition, and to seeing this region transformed into a destination.
The White Rock Court on Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona is a manifestation of Conrad Minka seizing the day.
Why a coat of white paint was recently added to the stone walls of the old auto court on Route 66 is anybody’s guess. I know that it was named the White Rock Court when it opened back in the mid 1930s. Still, the paint is not an improvement for the tired old relic.
It is an example of the treasures, the places with fascinating stories that hide in plain sight. They are found in every community in America, large and small. They are often overlooked. And when they are eventually erased through urban development, condemnation and razing because they have become eyesores or fire, seldom is the loss given a great deal of thought.
The White Rock Court is a rarity since it is a prewar Route 66 auto court that retains its garages between rooms. And it is a rarity because it is a tangible link to a dark period of American history. This was the only motel in Kingman, Arizona that was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book.
In Kingman, Arizona these treasures hiding in plain sight have been put in the spotlight with the innovative narrated, self guided historic district walking tourdeveloped by Kingman Main Street. Completion of phase one brought the history of the White Rock Court to life. And it brought to life the history of the long vanished Harvey House, the Ramblin’ Rose, an early Travelodge from 1959, with original architectural details, the territorial era Mohave County jail and more than thirty other locations by sharing the stories of the people associated with these time capsules.
It is my hope that this project will serve as a template for other communities that want to preserve the history, the story of places, especially with the Route 66 centennial fast approaching. To date the endeavor in Kingman has exceeded my expectations that it would foster develop a sense of community and community purpose, and that it would become an attraction. Now, I am hoping that the increased awareness translates to preservation.
Left is the original Mohave County Courthouse in Kingman, Arizona. With completion of the new courthouse it was relocated and converted to the Commercial Hotel. The jail was built between 1909 and 1910. Photo Mohave Museum of History & Arts.
The volunteers that brought this long envisioned project to fruition are tired. They poured themselves into the endeavor. Still, we are discussing phase two. In phase one we told the story of the world famous Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner, 1946 Dunton Motors, Locomotive Park, Hotel Beale, 1917 Central Commercial complex and the site of the Pioneer Cemetery where bodies are still discovered during high school improvement projects.
So, what would I include in phase two? Well, I have a hundred so places in mind! There are alot of sites along the original alignment of the National Old Trails Road on South Front Street, now Topeka Street that have interesting stories.
And I would really like to document the surprising array of early automobile dealerships in Kingman. The first Ford agency opened in about 1910. There was a Packard and Chandler dealership on South Front Street in about 1916. The former Edsel dealership still stands along Route 66. Star, Cadillac, Mack, Hudson, Studebaker and DeSoto all had dealerships in Kingman.
The walking tour is a monument to patience. It was first proposed after the International Route 66 Festival in 2014.
So, I hope that this tour provides a bit of encouragement for anyone that works tirelessly to breathe new life into an historic district, to build a sense of community and community purpose, and to bring history to life. Don’t give up!