The Mother Road Trip- Route 66 History and Activities

This blog post was written by Kimberly Grossett, a Junior Fellow in the Library’s Informal Learning Office.

During the summer, many families take to the road to their favorite vacation spots. Whether it’s to the beach, the mountains, anywhere in between, these journeys don’t have to be boring. Travelers on Route 66–the “Mother Road”– have been making the trip an adventure itself since the 1930s. This summer, create your own adventure–real or virtual– with your family as we explore the history and cultural impact of Route 66.

History & Culture of Route 66

In 1925, Congress enacted a plan for national highway construction, which included an east-west artery from Chicago to Los Angeles—number 66. This highway was designed to connect rural towns to each other, instead of taking the quickest path, benefiting farmers and manufacturing companies. Each state along the route was responsible for paving their portion of the road. The famous highway begins in Chicago, and passes through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending in Los Angeles.

Most people know about Route 66 because of references to it in pop culture such as movies or books, not because they’ve actually driven it. During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, hundreds of thousands of people migrated west to California in search of work. Route 66—still in progress and unpaved in some rural areas— enabled people to travel fairly easily to an area of the country where farming had not been devastated. The classic 1939 John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath  features American families traveling Route 66 during the Dust Bowl. The book’s film adaptation is on the National Film Registry.

During World War II, the War Department took advantage of the newly-completed road to transport equipment, soldiers and supplies. In 1946, Nat King Cole released the Top-40 hit “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66!”  Since then, many recording artists have recorded their own versions, including Bing Crosby, The Rolling Stones, and John Mayer for the film Cars. Bobby Troup’s lyrics name cities and towns that Route 66 passes through including Joplin, Missouri, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Barstow, California.

Text detail from TV Mail Bag in the Washington Evening Star

Detail from TV Mail Bag, Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 10 Sept. 1961. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

In the early 1960s, the television series Route 66 aired on TV every Friday night. The show featured two young adventurers who drove Route 66 in a Corvette, stopping to help people. Many well-known actors from the time, like Alan Alda and Robert Duvall, guest-starred in episodes of the show.  Readers of the Washington Evening Star wrote hundreds of fan letters to the “TV Mailbag” column.

It’s important to note that travel along the famous highway was not always welcoming for everyone. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, African-American travelers were not allowed to be customers at many motels and even gas stations along Route 66. Library collections that speak to this time in history include copies the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to identify businesses open to all travelers.

Activity: Landmarks and Roadside Attractions

In spite of its history, Route 66 is lined with interesting landmarks and roadside attractions. Photographer Carol Highsmith chronicled the entirety of Route 66 in her photo archive, which is held at the Library. Here are a few highlights from her photographs:

Catoosa, Oklahoma, is hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean—but along Route 66 in Catoosa, you’ll find an 80-foot-long whale made of concrete and pipe and painted blue. The giant structure was built by a retired zookeeper for his wife who collected whale figurines and makes a great selfie stop!

 

The largest covered wagon in the world sits along Route 66 in Lincoln, Illinois. This roadside attraction has been in place since 2007.

A giant roadside attraction of a wagon with a model of Abraham Lincoln sitting on it in a tophat.

Abe Lincoln sits on a wagon, Route 66, Lincoln, Illinois. Photo by Carol Highsmith, courtesy Prints and Photographs Division.

Another fun stop along Route 66 is the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, where half-buried cars are displayed in an empty field. The cars are covered in spray painted graffiti and visitors are invited to bring paint and add to the “masterpiece.” You could add your own mark on Route 66.

Multicolored, graffitied cars rising from the desert.

Ant Farm Cadillac car art, Route 66, Amarillo, Texas. Photo by Carol Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division.

In addition to photographs of locations, Highsmith has also taken photographs of signs along the historic road. Below are a few examples:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Activity: Document Your Own Road Trips

Do you want to explore this summer? With a bit of planning, you can turn your summer road trip into a family adventure filled with exploration. Here are some ideas:

  • Explore Carol Highsmith’s photographs of Route 66 by making e a digital or in-person map with pins for location photographed
  • Make a sign in the style of “Route 66” representing a road in your community
  • Follow in Carol Highsmith’s footsteps by documenting your own community, like Highsmith has for Route 66. Share your photos with friends and family!

Don’t just drive from point A to point B—virtually or in person! Make an adventure of it and get your kicks by making your own map or sign about an important thoroughfare with photos of landmarks in your own community.