Missouri’s stretch of Route 66 designated as an ‘All-American Road’

Signs of renewal are stirring on Route 66.

Less than a month before the 95th birthday of the Mother Road, Steve Turner said Route 66 tourism is “kind of hit or miss right now” at Gay Parita Sinclair.

That’s the name of his family’s Route 66 business, located some 25 miles west of Springfield in Lawrence County, on land near the original alignment of the historic transcontinental highway.

Generally speaking, the Route 66 travel season runs from March or April through October each year. But it’s a bit of a question mark as to what the 2021 season will look like.

“I did get an email from one of the guys in Germany, and they were going to try to make a trip out in August,” Turner told the News-Leader last week.

That email is a big deal — Route 66 tourism is an international phenomenon, and like the rest of the global economy, it’s taken a big hit from the coronavirus pandemic, stakeholders say. 

A sign that reads

Barb Turner Barnes, Steve’s sister and the main owner-operator of Gay Parita, keeps track of visitors using a metal “clicker” counter device, just like the ones she used in her previous career as a theater manager in South Carolina.

In 2019, her clicker counted 13,000 visitors. In 2020, just 3,000.

Prior to the pandemic, numbers tended to increase, year-over-year, she said. But it’s not just the pandemic causing concern for those who rely on Mother Road tourism for business. As a cultural touchstone, Route 66 doesn’t seem to resonate with Americans as well as it could.

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A new move by the federal government might help, Missouri stakeholders said. After a long application process championed by Missouri’s Route 66 association and a Springfield-based civil engineering company, the stretch of Route 66 that runs through the Show-Me State was recently declared an “All-American Road” by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Gay Parita Sinclair, established in 1930,  is one of the highlights along Route 66 near Halltown, Mo.

The most scenic routes among the 184 roads in the National Scenic Byways program get the All-American designation because they have aspects that are unique in the entire country. They’re significant enough to be tourist spots in their own right.

Missouri Route 66’s All-American Road declaration, approved Jan. 19, was one of the last acts of the Trump administration. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao resigned in protest over the Jan. 6 Capitol unrest, but under an interim secretary’s watch, the department signed off on 49 designations, including 15 All-American Roads and 34 National Scenic Byways.

More fans abroad than at home

Gary Turner, who helped restore the Gay Parita Sinclair store on Route 66 near Spencer, Mo., draws a map at a desk inside the gas station on Monday, October 25, 2010. Turner died in 2015.

Publicity generated by the All-American Road news could help places like Gay Parita, its owners hope.

In normal years, the tourists tallied by Turner Barnes’ clicker include travelers from all over the world who stop by the store, so named because “parita” means something like “equal” in many European languages. The original shop and filling station was started in 1930 by Fred and Gay Mason, husband-and-wife business partners, who ran it before it burned down in 1955.

“You only see Gay’s name up there, so she’s probably more equal than Fred was,” the Turner siblings’ father, Gary Turner, told Route magazine in 2012.

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In the 2000s, the Turner family created a painstaking replica of the original Gay Parita, just one of many 21st-century small businesses now dotting Route 66. Before they passed away in 2015, Gary Turner and his wife, Lena, ran the shop; Turner Barnes said that before her father died, she promised him she’d move back from the Southeast to help run the family business.

Prior to the pandemic, Turner Barnes said there would be “probably 75 groups a year and a couple buses that come through.”

The Gay Parita Sinclair station on Historic Route 66 on Monday, October 25, 2010.  The station was restored by Gary Turner and his brother-in-law after a fire destroyed it in 1955.

She estimates “probably 30 percent” are from the U.S. “The rest is Europeans.”

From which countries do they hail?

“I mean, name them all,” Turner Barnes said. “All you’ve got to do is name them. We have people from Russia. We have people from small islands. We have people from Norway, Germany. You name it, they’re here.”

She lamented that more Americans don’t show the same enthusiasm: “I believe we have to get our America into it.”

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Springfield entrepreneur Kirk Wheeler offered similar thoughts when asked about public awareness of Route 66 in Europe versus the United States.

Wheeler owns a trio of businesses on East St. Louis Street, along the original 1926 alignment of the highway: Wheeler Automotive, which he started two decades ago; Mother Road Motorcycles, about a dozen years old; and Route 66 Food Truck Park. That one opened in early 2020.

The food truck park logged a week’s worth of business before the pandemic forced a temporary closure, Wheeler said, shuttering the 1,800-square-foot indoor dining room and walloping business hard.

Entrepreneur Kirk Wheeler added a classic Route 66

Before the pandemic, Wheeler made some new friends from England and New Zealand and “ended up accidentally kind of traveling along” with them on a Route 66 tour of his own.

Wheeler recalled asking, “Why do people from these other countries, they see it, they pay more attention to Route 66 than we do here?… What made you take three months off to come to the United States to travel this road?”

A man from New Zealand told Wheeler he had seen a lot of TV shows based on Route 66 when he was young.

“He always thought of that as being American, and they wanted to come experience it,” Wheeler said. “They’ve just got a real interest in it, I’d say more interest than the American population does.”

‘All-American Road’ status approved Jan. 19

That’s not to say the Mother Road lacks home-grown supporters — American fans have been working on Missouri Route 66 preservation for decades. In the late 1980s, a few years after Route 66 was officially decommissioned, the Route 66 Association of Missouri was formed.

In 1990, a bill signed by Gov. John Ashcroft named Missouri’s stretch of Route 66 a historic place, laying the groundwork for the All-American Road news recently announced by the federal government.

The new designation places the Show-Me State’s section of the road among the most important in U.S. history, on par with the Selma to Montgomery March Byway, commemorating the Civil Rights Era, and the Natchez Trace, the Native American trail that covers 440 miles in what is now Tennessee and Mississippi.

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The All-American Road was a win for the Route 66 Association of Missouri, which pursued it it for at least a decade.

At a cost of $188,000, the association worked with Springfield-based Great River Engineering to develop a 220-page corridor management plan laying out why Route 66 in Missouri was nationally significant, said Tommy Pike, a Springfield resident who was president of the association for roughly 20 years until losing a re-election bid in 2019.

The plan showed that Missouri’s part of Route 66 had at least two federally recognized “intrinsic qualities” of national importance. They include archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.

“It’s all about intrinsic qualities,” said Jerany Jackson, a Great River Engineering project manager who compiled much of the plan, which charts Route 66 history from prehistoric times to the present and GPS-maps all of Missouri’s historic Route 66 resources, from St. Louis to Joplin. “The most amazing thing about the state of Missouri is that our Route 66 actually has all of the intrinsic qualities that there are.”

Also “amazing,” in Jackson’s view: Missouri’s Route 66 is only completely covered over by the modern interstate system in a couple of places.

“Actual Route 66 exists as a standalone travel way,” Jackson explained.

Practically speaking, the federal government gave Missouri Route 66 All-American Road status for its “historic” and “cultural” qualities, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

“In order to be an All-American Road, I had to identify two things within our state on Route 66 of national significance,” Jackson said. “So they had to be things that if you were in Alaska or Florida or California or Minnesota … if you say, I want to see the Arch, you know where that is, that’s in St. Louis, Missouri. And that was one of my nationally significant spots. It’s on Route 66. The other was our festival” — the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield.

Springfield has an enthusiastic group of Route 66 buffs. A photo of Bud Perry (pictured on left) with David Eslick is on a wall inside Bud's Tire and Wheel. Eslick helped start the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in 2011. Bud's Tire and Wheel was the site of that first festival.

Getting an All-American Road designation as a feather in Missouri’s cap is a big deal for those who love Route 66.

“That’s probably the biggest thing that we’ve done, as an association,” said David Eslick, a founder of the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival and a longtime association member who sits on the board. “Tommy and Glenda Pike were the key parts of that because they got this thing started about 10 years ago.”

What does it mean for ‘Birthplace’ and business?

It’s a question that’s worth millions, or maybe billions, of dollars: Will declaring Route 66 an “All-American Road” help Missouri’s economy?

The $16 million in federal funding tied to the recent All-American Road and National Scenic Byway designations is relatively limited, said Mark Falzone, president of Scenic America, a national nonprofit focused on scenic byways and similar resources.

“The good news is, it’s actually more than has been allocated for the past nine years,” Falzone told the News-Leader last month. “There’s been zero funding for the last nine years combined.”

His group is advocating for $325 million in taxpayer byway spending for places like Missouri Route 66 to be included in the next highway funding bill. Congress is expected to debate it in the coming months as the Biden administration also pursues a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

Depending on what Congress approves, All-American Road funding “could pay for something as big as a visitor center to help encourage tourism, or it could pay for something as small as designing the educational literature that goes into that visitor center,” Falzone said. It could pay for other projects, like building a scenic overlook in a place where there’s a beautiful view. Anything related to the byway and its intrinsic qualities is fair game.

“It’s pretty open,” he said. The main exception is that byway money can’t be spent on advertising.

But byway designations like All-American Road carry another form of heft: branding.

Businesses “know they’re going to get an uptick in business, when they get this great designation,” Falzone said.

It’s hard to quantify the real size of the Missouri Route 66 economy: Opinions vary. A Rutgers University study from 2011 found that Route 66 economic output along all eight Route 66 states combined came to $261 million each year, with state and local governments collecting $14.1 million in taxes annually.

Jackson, who prepared the 220-page corridor management plan, places the number even higher.

“We’re talking about billions of dollars … in the state of Missouri,” she said.

Some might do a double-take at the idea, but Jackson is serious. Impacts from the Route 66 economy in Missouri “haven’t been quantified quite the way they have for some other byways,” she said, but economic output from scenic byway tourism across the country is “significant.”

“Those of us that know Route 66 know how popular it is,” Jackson said.

Phyllis Ferguson, a Springfield restaurant executive who is finishing out her term on Springfield City Council, said that with the possible exception of city-level efforts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “I think that no one in government really has been able to truly estimate the value of Route 66 In terms of economic vitality.”

Believing in ongoing potential for Route 66 growth, she started a Route 66 business last year. In 2019, Ferguson stepped in to take over and renovate a motor court on the College Street historic corridor. It had a central building that then hosted a sandwich shop.

Last year, Ferguson bought out the restaurant and then renovated the entire complex into Rockwood Motor Court, which she markets to travelers through Airbnb and other internet platforms.

Ferguson said she spent three times the money she initially thought the project would cost, declining to say how much. But the place is a for-profit business, as well as a labor of love.

This 1940s-era postcard advertises the Rockwood Court and Cafe on historic Route 66. The property is now Rockwood Motor Court, owned by Springfield entrepreneur and outgoing Council member Phyllis Ferguson, who reopened it in 2020.

“Yes, I wanted to renovate an old Route 66 motor court and bring it back to life,” Ferguson said. “It had a lot of good bones still … but I’m not going to pour my money down a hole without thinking I’m not going to get some return.”

Ferguson thinks the All-American Road status is helpful. “Anything that designates Route 66 as special, we’re going to use to market with,” she said. “Because people don’t want the mundane, they want what’s special.”

She agreed with others interviewed for this story that doing more to promote Route 66 to the domestic travel market is needed.

Phyllis Ferguson shows off one of the room keys to the Rockwood Motor Court located at 2204 W. College on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. Ferguson renovated the motor court to bring it back to its Route 66 glory days.

“I think in America, sometimes we take those sorts of things for granted,” she said. “And then you get a shiny new title, so to speak — I’m not being glib, but it gives it significance…”

“For a lot of folks, they’ve kind of forgotten about Route 66, and so it brings it back up and puts some more shine on it again.”

Ferguson identified Route 66’s main appeal as nostalgia. “It’s remembering when you were a kid, or it’s stories you heard from your grandma and grandpa when they went to California and crossed the desert.”

She said Airbnb means her customer base has grown to include millennial-aged travelers who might relate to Route 66 more through references to Lightning McQueen in the Cars movie series than “Get Your Kicks” or The Grapes of Wrath. She delighted in relaying the recent story of a 28-year-old Chicago man on a bicycle journey all the way to Santa Monica who stopped by Rockwood Motor Court for the night.

‘Pent-up domestic demand’ for the open road

As the country vaccinates against COVID-19 and people grow weary of public health restrictions, it seems possible that Route 66 travel could benefit, some observers think.

Falzone, the Scenic America leader, predicted “pent-up domestic demand” for travel due to the pandemic will soon manifest in a lot of people taking road trips.

“Folks are going to choose, over the coming year, to really drive,” he said. “During their vacation, they’re going to hop in their car and see America.”

Attendees thronged the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in downtown Springfield on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2018. The following year, organizers said it attracted 65,000 people. The 2020 festival had to be canceled due to the pandemic, but organizers hope to bring it back in Aug. 2021.

Springfield has a major annual event that celebrates America’s passion for cars and wanderlust, the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival.

The pandemic’s arrival forced organizers to cancel it last year, but this year it’s on as long as case counts stay low, said Cora Scott, chief city spokesperson and Rusty Worley, Downtown Springfield Association director, in separate interviews.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed,” Scott said. “Now what exactly that will look like in terms of, will there will people be required to wear a mask, what the current (measures are) … you know, it’s too much of a crystal ball.”

What Scott can say for sure is that they’re planning to honor the community’s “health care heroes” for their service during the pandemic with the festival’s signature classic-car parade and other activities.

In 2019, when it was last held, Birthplace of Route 66 attracted 65,000 visitors. Anecdotally, organizers like Scott report that attendees come from many states and from other countries. Some Australians have come back two and three years running, Scott said.

Scott said it’s not clear how many might attend this time, but they plan to try to learn more about where people are coming from, how long they’re staying in Springfield and what types of recreation they’re enjoying.

Scott said the All-American Road designation will help the festival organizers put it on the international map: “Anything that draws attention to the fact that Springfield is the birthplace of Route 66 is a is a positive thing.”

Eslick, one of the festival founders who is also active with the Route 66 Association of Missouri, said 2020’s cancellation broke some of the decade-old festival’s momentum since it began as a small neighborhood gathering. He thinks by 2022, “we’ll come back with the same music and fill the downtown, you know, with 65,000 people.”

What’s next?

Pike, the former Route Association of Missouri president, said the All-American Road designation isn’t the last word on Route 66’s historic place in Missouri life.

“There is another movement afoot,” he said. He’s involved.

A group called The Road Ahead Partnership is backing an effort to get Route 66 named a National Historic Trail. A bipartisan bill was introduced into the U.S. House in September, according to a news release from the group.

Pike said this would give Route 66 a status equal to the Oregon Trail and its 18 other counterparts. “And that will be another level.”

“There are a lot of people who like to travel the national historic trails,” Pike said, “and it brings the opportunity for development.”

Reach News-Leader reporter Gregory Holman by emailing [email protected] Please consider subscribing to support vital local journalism.

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