Route 66, also known as U.S. Highway 66, was the first completely paved highway in the nation. Work began on it in 1926 and the final portion was paved in 1937. It stretched 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles through eight states, with over 300 miles of it crossing Missouri from St. Louis to Joplin. The highway was decommissioned after it was replaced by interstate highways. Sections of the “Mother Road” have survived and, with it, accompanying scenes of life in an earlier time. Like mining camps that sprang up during the discovery of gold and were later abandoned, Route 66 has left behind ghost towns and memories.
Much of the road was cut through the Ozarks in the southern portion of the state. Within the 70-mile stretch from Springfield to Joplin, there are several ghost towns that were once vibrant communities until the highway was replaced by Interstate 44.
To help get a feeling of life before the fast-paced interstate highways, Route 66 Museum in Lebanon, Missouri, 46 miles northeast of Springfield, has recreated a life-size 1950s gas station and diner. It also has items on display from other U.S. Highway 66 states. Imagine pulling into a gas station, only instead of self-service, the attendant takes care of the gas, checks the oil, and cleans the windshield. While this is taking place, step into the adjoining diner for an ice cream soda or sandwich.
Lebanon also has the Munger-Moss Motel, one of the roadside inns built along Route 66 during the 1940s and still in business today. Location, especially in this case, is everything. Other motels were forgotten when the highway was replaced by I-44, but this one happened to be close to an exit ramp where the interstate and old highway ran parallel to each other.
Springfield is a little less than an hour away. This third largest city in Missouri is where the highway was officially named in 1926. Ten miles to the west is Plano, Missouri, the first in a stretch of ghost towns.
Plano was part of the old Wire Road course used by the telegraph line from St. Louis to Fort Smith, Arkansas. It followed the well-known Great Osage Trail and was part of the Missouri portion of the Trail of Tears. The area is near Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, the first major battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi. At one time, the unincorporated area housed a casket factory and mortuary. Those are long gone and only the ruins remain.
Halltown thrived as a small town during the days of Route 66. It had several businesses including grocery stores, gas station, blacksmith, and antique shops. In fact, it used to be called the “Antique Capital of the World.” Once the interstate bypassed the town, most of the businesses closed and were boarded up. Whitehall Mercantile, however, is still open. It is part grocery store and part antique shop. The building was constructed in 1900, pre-dating Route 66. The town’s population is around 173, many of whom are area farmers.
In the 1850s, people came to a place called Paris Springs to enjoy the healing mineral waters. The area flourished with hotels, various mills and stores typical of the day. When Route 66 came through, the town moved one-half mile to be closer to it. Paris Springs Junction, as the new town was called, added a Sinclair gas station with soda and sandwich shop. The owner named it after his wife, Gay Parita. This was a popular stop along America’s highway until the Interstate bypassed it. Years later, the 1930s gas station was restored, and even though it no longer sells gas, it is a popular stop.
Several other ghost towns in this area are experiencing either a restoration or a historic reproduction of a building or two from the heyday of U.S. Highway 66. Some of them just have a sign to indicate a town was ever there. Carthage, Missouri, comes after this stretch. It has a population of approximately 14,500, and is known for its hard limestone called Carthage marble. This polished “marble” can be found in many public buildings including the Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City. Carthage is home to one of the few remaining drive-in theaters. It got a lot of use during the days of the old highway. It was restored by a local family, and still shows movies.
From end to end, historic sites, state and national historical markers, small museums, and other monuments can be found along the “Mother Road.” There seems to be a resurgence in the preservation of “America’s highway.” Each of the eight states has its own Route 66 Museum: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Route 66 was built to link communities together. It is still doing that today.
Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent