Tag Archives: Route 66

St. Louis: Missouri History Museum

The day after my presentation in New Haven (at the wonderfully restored Old School), I was on my way, this time heading an hour west, to St. Louis—and another speaking engagement. Even when I only have a short amount of time in a place, I always try to see something local that is of interest, and on this trip, it was the Missouri History Museum. The front of the museum, as one approaches, is imposing and classical, but as one circles the building in search of parking, the new addition behind this older part of the building comes into view.

The Museum is in Forest Park, which was the location of the 1904 World’s Fair, so it is fitting that one wing in the old building had an exhibit of that fair. The fair celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. One is reminded by photographs and informational posts of what an astonishing feat it was to create the fairground: a river had to be rerouted, an extensive sewer system had to be build, and what was essentially an entire city had to be built. It took 10,000 laborers to construct it all.

A placard informed me that the fair featured “the most extensive representation of goods from the Eastern Hemisphere ever found at an international exposition.” There were more nations represented than at any previous World’s Fair. Everyone wanted to show the world what they had to offer, as the economy was becoming global. The largest exhibit was of the Philippines, covering 47 acres and with a thousand Filipinos on hand. Remarkable.

It was not a huge exhibit, but it was packed with information. I continued on, past Thomas Jefferson and into the main hall, where the Spirit of St. Louis hung overhead. Into a fascinating, temporary exhibit on Route 66, which was “main street through Missouri.” St. Louis was the largest city on Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles.

An interior doorway frames the statue of Thomas Jefferson in the older part of the museum.

The second floor affords a close view of the Spirit of St. Louis.

Then upstairs to the Anheuser-Busch Gallery, which highlights the remarkable and difficult early history of St. Louis. There were fires, cholera epidemics, floods, earthquakes (New Madrid Fault)—all of it even harder for the city’s pre-Civil War slave population. But there were also energy and success, and the city grew. Again, a remarkable amount of information packed quite attractively into the available space. It was a good reminder that everywhere has a rich past, and there is more to know than we will ever be able to take in.

Charred walls and an antique fire wagon are reminders of the Great Fire of 1849 in St. Louis.

Then across to the McDonnell Douglas Gallery, which covers St. Louis from 1904 to 2000, though with a concentration on the ‘50s and ‘60s.

A vintage Airstream Trailer celebrates the increased mobility of Americans after WW II.

Then, feeling wonderfully exhilarated by all I’d learned, but also weary from a busy day, I headed to my hotel, to put my feet up for a while before my presentation that evening. But a good day.

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Route 66—Atlanta, Illinois

Atlanta, IL, on Route 66

Atlanta, IL, on Route 66

While agriculture was the focus of my research, that didn’t keep me from enjoying all aspects of life, culture, and history that I encountered as I explored. While I roamed about central Illinois, I was delighted to encounter—and even drive on a number of times—pieces of the historic Route 66.

Most Americans have heard of Route 66, the highway that stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles, if only from the song that suggests, “Get your kicks on Route 66.” I’d only previously visited the beginning of the road in downtown Chicago and walked along a short stretch in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

While Route 66 was not the first important road in the country, it was one of the first created for motor vehicles. Approved in 1926, it wasn’t entirely constructed and paved until 1938. Route 66 quickly became a key element of America’s love affair with car travel. The highway connected towns, and new towns grew up along the highway as its importance increased.

Drive-in restaurants, fast food, motor inns, and roadside advertising either had their genesis or came of age along Route 66. It became known as the “Mother Road,” a term John Steinbeck used for it in the Grapes of Wrath, as it became an important escape route for those migrating to California from the Dust Bowl states.

Automobile traffic surged following World War II, as prosperity returned to a country recovering from two wars and the Great Depression. The song mentioned above, written by Bobby Troup and recorded in 1946 by Nat King Cole, became a hit. In 1960, a TV show titled “Route 66” focused on a couple of heroes driving the highway in a Corvette, in search of each week’s adventure. The “Mother Road” was where people wanted to be.

But things change. Small towns slowed down traffic, so highways were routed around those towns—causing considerable hardship for those towns. More traffic, heavier trucks, faster cars called for wider roads and new construction methods that could withstand the onslaught. Today, Route 66 is no longer formally recognized as a U.S. Highway. It is a historic relic cared for by those who value history and the iconic nature of the road. There are segments and stretches that parallel new highways, but they hardly reveal the importance they once had. Still, one is pleased to encounter those segments and stretches—and remember what the highway once meant.

The photo above is of “downtown” Atlanta, Illinois, where Route 66 was once the main street through town. (Note the Route 66 sign on the wall visible over the car’s hood. If you click on the photo, it will enlarge, and the sign will be much clearer.)

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