Route 66, that iconic 2,448-mile asphalt ribbon of quintessential Americana, was known by several names, including the Main Street of America, the Mother Road and the Will Rogers Highway.
Stretching from Chicago to the Pacific shore in Santa Monica, Calif., the highway wound through eight U.S. states, bisecting or skirting 319 cities and towns along the way.
Commissioned in 1926 and fully paved in 1938, Route 66 served many purposes during its six decades of prominence. The highway stimulated the economics of the communities through which it passed, germinated numerous mom-and-pop enterprises and marked the birth of the roadside fast-food industry.
It supported the grim westward migration of most of the 210,000 economic refugees escaping the devastating brutality of the Dust Bowl during the 1930s, thus earning it an additional moniker, “The Road to Opportunity.”
It facilitated transport of military vehicles and equipment during World War II and the joyous homecoming of many soldiers afterward.
It provided a picturesque and adventurous channel of wanderlust for vacationing families during the era of big cars and cheap gasoline.
The importance of Route 66 sharply diminished with the enactment of the Interstate Highway Act signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. The route was supplanted section by section with newer interstates and Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985.
Oklahoma is perhaps the state most securely pinned to both the genesis of the road and to its present nostalgic commemoration.
Entrepreneur Cyrus Avery, dubbed “The Father of Route 66,” lived most of his life in Tulsa, Okla. He was appointed to a federal board tasked with creating the Federal Highway System and prevailed in suggesting the route for a cross-continental east-west major highway.
He successfully argued moving the originally conceived route to the south to avoid construction through the Rocky Mountains.
Avery also championed the establishment of the U.S. Highway 66 Association to advocate the road’s complete paving and promote tourist and commercial travel.
Throughout the decades Route 66 enticed a collection of roadside kitsch, including motel rooms shaped like tepees, the world’s largest ketchup bottle, world’s tallest totem pole and gas pump, second largest rocking chair, Cadillac ranch featuring 10 cars partially buried nose down and several giant fiberglass “muffler men.”
Today Oklahoma boasts the most drivable miles of the original highway of any state. A portion of pavement of the route in Bridgeport, Okla., is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., together with a neon sign taken from a gas station and tourist cabins near Hydro, Okla.
The Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza, located in Tulsa, exhibits a 20,000-pound sculpture, “East Meets West,” depicting the Avery family riding west in a Model T meeting a westbound horse-drawn carriage.
Several attractions fete the legendary humorist, actor, writer and vaudeville performer Will Rogers, “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” who was born in Cherokee territory now subsumed by Oklahoma.
Other Oklahoma landmarks along Route 66:
- Provine Service Station near Hydro, operated by Lucille Hamons from 1941 until her death in 2000. She earned the title, “Mother of the Mother Road,” for her widely renowned generosity toward travelers during hard economic times.
- Milk Bottle Grocery in Oklahoma City. The small building is overshadowed by the giant milk bottle on its rooftop.
- Pops Restaurant, Arcadia, featuring a 66-foot-tall neon sign in the shape of a pop bottle.
- Round Barn, Arcadia. The structure has served as a community hall since 1898.
- Fort Reno, El Reno, which served as a U.S. military post from 1874 through World War II.
Several museums in the state are dedicated to the history and culture of the famed thoroughfare:
National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, elkcity.com.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, Clinton, okhistory.org.
Heart of Route 66 Auto Museum, Sapulpa, heartofroute66.org.
Afton Station Packard Museum, Afton, aftonstationroute66.com.