‘Route 66: The Road and the Romance’ on Exhibit

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The Autry National Center of the American West presents Route 66: The Road and the Romance from June 9, 2014 to January 4, 2015. This is the first exhibition that considers Route 66 from a “national perspective,” according to the Autry. Highlighting over 250 historical artifacts, the Autry exhibit surveys the road’s inception in 1926, from the Great Depression to its eventual displacement by the Interstate Highway System to the movement for its preservation. Visitors will look at fact and fiction that surrounds one of the most iconic roads in America.

Still known as the “Main Street of America,” U.S. highway Route 66 is a 2,448-mile-long stretch of highway that links Chicago to Los Angeles. It is not only a physical road; Route 66 is an eyewitness to history. The highway became legendary for its romantic notion and by American nomads like the Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac.

The idea of a national highway is almost as timeworn as Good Roads Movement of 1890s. In the early 1920s, there was a call for change in improving roadways, as a new American landscape was unfolding. Federal highway officials were confronted with rising automobile ownership that was replacing the railroad, and the unviability of rural roads. A numbered road system ensued.

Entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff advocated a diagonal road coursing from Chicago to Los Angeles. Avery petitioned for the route because it would redirect traffic from Kansas City, Missouri, and Denver and boost Oklahoma’s prosperity. While the two men merit credit in support of the idea, their labors were only recognized when the national highway and road development program intervened.

Initially, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials (AASHTO) christened the road as Route 60, and then Route 62. However, Avery objected to the name change stating that AASHTO was making a mockery of the highway. In the summer of 1926, the route name was officially amended, and Avery became known as the “Father of Route 66. Route 66 was recognized as one of the nation’s primary east-west arteries.

The roadway was considered a vital route. It became the pathway to Western promise for “Okie” refugees fleeing the 1930s Dust Bowl in search of a better life. By the mid-80s, however, the highway was considered outmoded and the “Mother Road” was decommissioned.

route 66

Even though Missouri was the highway’s derivation, Oklahoma is probably the most famed location of the route and claims the longest segment (approximately 400 miles). In fact, Oklahoma native Andrew Hartley Payne won the “Bunion Derby” in 1928 – 3,400-mile race that went from Los Angeles to New York which much of it on Route 66.

Additionally, the road’s most celebrated travelers came from Oklahoma, including Will Rogers, Woody Guthrie, and the fictitious Joad family from Steineck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The author gave Route 66 its most recognized nickname the “Mother Road,” which was conveyed in the epic film and functioned to “immortalize the highway in the American conscious.”

In 1956, President Eisenhower enacted the Federal Aid Highway Act inspired by the German autobahn. He sought to make highways more efficient and keep pace with the growing traffic demands, including Route 66 wherein sections were replaced or largely bypassed by the Interstate Highway System.During the Second World War, the newly paved highway served as an important military transport route.

Pop culture tributes also played a key role, and include (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 written by American songwriter, Bobby Troup, the former pianist with the Tommy Dorsey band – It winds from Chicago to LA, More than two thousand miles all the way. Get your kicks on Route sixty-six – and has been sung by Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones and John Meyer.

route 66

When the television series, Route 66 came into American living rooms, postwar motorists hit the road in the 60s “looking for adventure.” In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the character, Sal Paradise travels along Route 66, and it served as a symbol for the rebellious Beat Generation – “the long-haired broken down hipsters straight off Route 66 from New York.”

By the 70s, the infamous Route 66 was replaced with five different interstates and the highway’s Arizona stretch was decommissioned in 1984. By 1985, the entire route was decommissioned. Ever since, various groups have tried to protect Route 66 history, America’s first paved highway and the struggling businesses along the road. Sections of the route are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and others are considered National Scenic Byways.

New Mexican lawmakers pushed a Route 66 preservation bill through Congress in 1999. The $10 million proposal, signed by President Bill Clinton, helped preserve and restore sections of the highway route. However, it was not enough. By 2007, motel owners noted that efforts put in place to repair the architectural landmarks were scarce and “time has become the road’s worst enemy.” Route 66 is included on the World Monuments Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Sites watch list.

The Autry exhibition presents historical relics from private collections and institutions across the United States. The show features an array of artworks, film, music, artifacts, and opens with an overview of the major technological and industrial changes that “radically altered American life” and “paved the way for a national network of roads.” Other historical remnants include the oldest Route 66 shield in existence, a Ford Model T engine, and a handwritten page from the manuscript, The Grapes of Wrath and a ten-foot twin gas pump among other items.

Route 66 was the iconic road that drifters, refugees and American icons have traversed. The highway became a symbol of popular culture and 20th century America. From ten half-buried junker Cadillacs on Cadillac Ranch in Texas to the infamous “easy ride” of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Route 66 is still mostly navigable but for those who just want to experience the spirit of Route 66, then the Autry’s Road and the Romance is the place to get their kicks.

By Dawn Levesque

Autry National Center of the American West
National Historic Route 66 Federation
U.S. Department of Transportation

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