Road Trip: Route 66
There aren’t a lot of things that say “summer” more than a road trip---except, of course, Blue Star Museums. With that in mind, we’ve planned a museum road trip that follows historic Route 66.
Route 66 resonates heavily in American culture. Just mention the name and images of red-brown stretches of road, cacti, and infinite blue sky instantaneously come to mind. The road is a great part of history, which is part of the reason it invokes such a visceral reaction. Established in 1926, the route was invaluable during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, when hundreds of families traveled down the road as they fled their homes to go out West. It spanned from Chicago, Illinois, all the way to Los Angeles, California, and took a path through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The original route underwent many changes through the years, and was officially de-certified in 1985.
Even though the route does not technically exist anymore, many states have put up Historic Route 66 markers to serve as reminder of what there once was. Here's a state-by-state guide of museums you'll find along the way.
We begin our trip just outside of Chicago at the Joliet Area Historical Museum, in Joliet, Illinois, in order to get a strong sense of what Route 66 was. The museum first opened in 2002 with the mission of “promoting awareness, understanding, and preservation of Joliet’s diverse history.” It has many state-of-the-art galleries, but its most interesting feature is its “Time Travelers Bus Trips.” The museum has a specific Route 66 tour that goes from the visitor’s center and loops all around the area, stopping at gas stations that would have been in use during Route 66’s peak, restaurants dedicated to the historic route, and a war museum. The Joliet Area Historical Museum has other great exhibits to stop by while you’re there, like the Apollo/Houbolt Exhibit, which tells the story of the 1969 moon landing through interactive panels, diagrams, and more.
Two and a half hours further down Historic Route 66, there is the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. This is the museum's headquarters, which has other branches throughout the state. The museum celebrates the area’s history by preserving artifacts and narratives from residents of Springfield through the decades. The Illinois State Museum not only has a collection from the “heartland” of Illinois, but also exhibits the area's Native-American history, as well as a set of post-Napoleonic French paperweights. Another permanent installation is the Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum, where children can learn what it’s like to work in a museum through play. This part of the museum is hands on, and is designed for children ages 3-10. Because of the eclectic array of galleries at the Illinois State Museum, this stop will be sure to entice everyone.
Once you cross the border into Missouri, take a stop at the Powers Museum in Carthage. The museum is right on Historic Route 66, now West Oak Street. Before it was a museum, the location hosted Route 66's Taylor Tourist Park, later known as the Park Motor Court & Cafe. Because of its location, its ties to the route are deep. The museum is dedicated to Carthage’s history. While it does not host any permanent collections, the exhibits that come through are fresh and relevant to the area. They highlight important artifacts and events that date back to the Civil War. This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the museum, and a celebratory exhibit is on display from July to May. The exhibit, Out of Boxes, Trunks and Drawers: A Museum Collection is Created, is based off of the first exhibit the Powers Museum ever held in June of 1988. When you’re done at the museum, make sure to stop by the Jasper County Courthouse, where there is a Route 66 history display which includes a video presentation.
Near Carthage, right as we move into Kansas, is Galena. There were only 12.8 miles of Route 66 in Kansas, but they are proud of what they had. In Galena, the route brought truck stops and motels, inviting a much-needed economic boost to what had been a dwindling mining town. Now, the ghosts of Route 66 are still felt in this small town. Since the trip in Kansas is so short, we won’t stop at a museum, but be sure to drive through Galena and imagine how it used to be.
Route 66 by flickr user KB35
The Tulsa Historical Society is the next stop on our road trip. Tulsa, Oklahoma, has an important place in the history of Route 66, for it was Cyrus Avery, a businessman from Tulsa, who began the campaign to create a road that linked Chicago to Los Angeles. By creating and establishing the road, he earned himself the name “Father of Route 66,” and garnered Tulsa the unofficial moniker “Birthplace of Route 66.” The Tulsa Historical Society has always paid homage to Route 66, but recently bolstered their dedication to the historic route by hiring Route 66 expert Michael Wallis as their resident historian. Wallis has spent much of his life researching and writing about Route 66---his book on the route, Route 66: The Mother Road, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is thought of as the definitive book on the subject. The Route 66 Alliance, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Wallis and dedicated to promoting and enhancing the route, is now headquartered at the Historical Society. Coming up in October, the Society, along with Michael and Suzanne Wallis, will be hosting bus tours of Route 66, but for the summer, we can soak up all the history at the Tulsa Historical Society.
Now it's time to hop in the car and drive on to Texas! Texas was once home to 178 miles of Route 66. While most of the road is now gone, the spirit remains in Amarillo. The town boasts a one-mile stretch of the now-defunct highway, and has created a district full of antique shops, restaurants, and bars to make the Historic Route 66 more welcoming. The Amarillo Museum of Art, which opened in 1972, can also be found here. This museum not only focuses on local artistry, but reaches out to other states, countries, and cultures to bring the world to Amarillo. It features everything from African art and Asian prints to art-themed summer camps for children.
Tucumcari, New Mexico, began as outlaw town in 1901. A railroad brought people and business to and from the town. Tucumcari flourished until the Depression, when surrounding towns more or less dropped off the map. Route 66 saved Tucumcari from this fate. Today, Tucumcari has a population of 6,000 and pays homage to Route 66 with the Tucumcari Historical Museum. Self-defined as “one giant attic of old stuff,” the museum is in the building that once housed the 1903 school house. It has an array of artifacts that date back to 12,000 B.C., and more than anything strives to maintain the feel and history of the area. Its Route 66 exhibit provides a narrative of the town, acknowledging how monumental the highway was. You’re sure to leave with a sense of how Route 66 contributed to the success of the towns it touched.
Established in 1928, the Museum of Northern Arizona, in Flagstaff, Arizona, is our next stop. Flagstaff boasts heavily of its Route 66 heritage, for without the route, it would not be the city it is today. The economy was bolstered and stabilized due to Route 66, and the city was able to grow from there. There is plenty to do in Flagstaff, and a quick glance will reveal that Route 66 is still very much part of the attraction. Its main street is now “Route 66,” changed from “Santa Fe Avenue.” There are remnants of the route, like the Museum Club, built in 1931 and rumored to be haunted, or the 66 Motel. If you want to learn more about the history of Flagstaff, the Museum of Northern Arizona is the place to find it. While the museum originally exhibited only Native-American artifacts, it now has a wide array of exhibits that are divided by four disciplines: anthropology, biology, geology, and fine art. The museum also conducts research that focuses on the natural and cultural diversity of the area. The Museum of Northern Arizona provides a closer look at the people who saw the route firsthand, and how their area changed because of it.
End of the Trail by flickr user Slipshod Photog
Pasadena, California, is the penultimate stop on our road trip. As we travel along Colorado Boulevard, formerly Route 66, we can find the Norton Simon Museum. The museum came to be when the Pasadena Art Museum, which had been experiencing financial and managerial problems, and Norton Simon, a noted entrepreneur, industrialist, and philanthropist, came together. When Simon took over the museum, his art collection was combined with what the museum already had. The museum reopened as the Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena, with new works by Degas, Picasso, Raphael, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and more. Today, the Degas exhibit includes over 100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Norton Simon breathed new life into the museum, not only with his collections, but with innovation.
We end our journey in Los Angeles, at least 2,000 miles from where we started. Los Angeles is full of vibrant art and culture, and picking one museum to stop at is difficult. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), though, seems an obvious choice, with over 100,000 objects, some of which date back centuries. The museum was founded in 1961, but grew from the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art, which was established in 1910, predating Route 66. While this museum expanded, so did the rest of Los Angeles, as more and more patrons and people took the route into the city. The LACMA is a staple of LA and in its diversity reflects the city’s diversity, as well as the country’s---the country that we just rode across.
For all its bumps and potholes, the road is one of the best places to observe the world around you. Traveling in and out of small towns, seeing how the country grew and waned, making memories that will slowly fade to nostalgia. What better use of summer?