Oklahoma's mother road
With more than 400 miles of Route 66 in the state, a plethora of roadside charms awaits travelers.
Route 66. The Mother Road. The Main Street of America. The fabled highway has had many names over the past 90 years and has lived just as many lives.
When it was established in 1926, it was a beacon of progress at the dawn of the automobile age.
It became the path to a better life in the ’30s for Okies escaping the Dust Bowl.
It served our troops in the ’40s as their convoys prepared to enter World War II.
It reached its pop culture zenith in the ’50s and ’60s as the icon of the American road trip.
It was immortalized in song and was even the subject of a popular television show.
Although the coming of the Interstate Highway System diverted energy from the historic road, eventually leading it to federal de-certification, it has enjoyed resurgent interest in the past 20 years.
“Following the publication of ‘Route 66: The Mother Road’ in 1990, I was often asked if I was surprised by all the attention my book received from the news media and the public,” says Michael Wallis, co-founder of the Route 66 Alliance. “My early response was that I was not surprised since I knew there were many others who knew that the historic highway was not only alive and well but that at least 85 percent of the Mother Road was still available for travelers to enjoy.
“However, it was not long before my attitude changed, as I witnessed the unprecedented increase of interest in Route 66 across the nation and, in time, around the world. Those numbers have steadily continued to spiral upward. I know that the future of Route 66 is not only assured but glowing as bright as a band of neon.”
Small communities are seeing new life as tourists and road-trippers opt for the old two-lane passage to get a sense of what they were missing on cruise control. Route 66 spans eight states, from the cornfields of Illinois to the beach in California. Oklahoma has over 400 miles within its borders, more than any other state. The road also is known as the Will Rogers Highway, after the Sooner State’s most famous son.
The questions are: What’s out there? What experiences await those who take the off-ramp and traverse the old road?
Route 66 enters Oklahoma in the northeast corner, in the town of Quapaw. It weaves through the state and enters Texas at the border town of Texola. There are many things to see and do in the space between; here are a few of them to help inspire your own trip down the blacktop.
The Coleman Theatre in Miami was built in 1929 as a vaudeville palace. The “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ played along to silent films inside while people marveled at the Spanish Revival-style architecture outside. Although the theater fell into disrepair in the 1980s, it has been fully restored and tours are now regularly available. When you stand on the stage and look out over the auditorium, you can almost hear the applause given to famous entertainers who performed there like Tom Mix, Sally Rand, Bing Crosby and Will
Rogers. Music acts, dramatic productions and silent movie festivals still happen throughout the year.
On the other side of Miami, near Narcissa, a bypassed segment of the old road stretches beyond a granite historic marker. This is the Sidewalk Highway, also known as Ribbon Road. The single lane is only 9 feet wide. Legend has it that the narrow width was a cost-saving measure; should two cars happen to encounter one another, one was expected to pull off to the side and let the other pass.
Continuing southwest through Ottawa County, the town of Afton is home to a restored D-X Service Station that houses a Packard automobile museum. Afton Station was opened in the early 2000s and remains a fixture for Route 66 travelers as the museum boasts, among other treasures, a 1917 Packard Motorhome prototype.
If you’re getting hungry by the time you enter Vinita, the perfect place to stop is Clanton’s Café. It’s the oldest continually owned family restaurant on OK-66 and was even featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Clanton’s is known for its chicken fried steak, which has been recognized by Gourmet Magazine. On Sundays it offers free dessert. The Clanton’s philosophy is that eating out should be “like having Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house.”
Back when Route 66 was in its heyday, the heavy traffic made it hazardous to cross on foot. To solve this problem, some towns built underground tunnels to allow pedestrians to cross in safety. Most of them are gone now, but one in Chelsea was recently restored. One wall contains a mural featuring several historic sites from the town, while the opposite wall is home to hundreds of signatures left by travelers from across the globe. Bring a Sharpie and add your own name.
Claremore is the home of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. Although it’s about a mile off of the route proper, it’s well worth the detour. Rogers rose to fame on the vaudeville stage; by the time of his death in 1935 he was the highest-paid star in Hollywood. He was beloved nationwide for his quick wit and political humor. Route 66 was rededicated as the Will Rogers Highway in 1952 to great fanfare.
Across the Verdigris River and next to a small pond in Catoosa sits one of the Mother Road’s most famous landmarks: the Blue Whale. Blue was built in the 1970s by Hugh Davis as an anniversary present to his wife; before the whale, the swimming hole was already popular with tourists due to Hugh’s collection of reptiles and prairie dogs. The whale remains an attraction today as a prime example of the roadside kitsch that made Route 66 famous in the first place.
The city of Tulsa holds a distinctive place on the highway. Not only does the rich Oil Capital heritage show itself through downtown architecture and the giant Golden Driller statue, but the spot where Route 66 crosses the Arkansas River is marked by a statue of Cyrus Avery.
He was the known as the “Father of Route 66” due to his influence in establishing the road and creating the U.S. Highway 66 Association. Without Avery, Route 66 might’ve never existed. The same area also is slated to be the home of the Route 66 Experience in 2019.
One of Oklahoma’s newest Mother Road attractions is the Heart of Route 66 Auto Museum in Sapulpa. The attraction opened in a former National Guard armory in 2016 and features a giant gasoline pump on the front lawn. The showroom is home to a selection of antique cars, including a section dedicated to military vehicles and memorabilia. The museum also won the 2017 Oklahoma Travel Industry Association Redbud Merit Award for Outstanding New Attraction.
Stroud is home to the Rock Cafe. Dawn Welch, the current owner of the restaurant, previously owned a restaurant in Costa Rica before she came to town to look at an old grill. She fell in love with the place and has been operating “The Rock” ever since. Her story inspired the character of Sally Carrera in Pixar’s 2006 film “Cars,” which is represented by multiple cutout characters from the film in front of the building.
Not far away, in Chandler, is a man known around the world for his Route 66 expertise and highly recommended guidebook. “The EZ66 Guide for Travelers,” or the EZ Guide for short, is a turn-by-turn guide written by Jerry McClanahan. In 2005, he published the first version of the EZ Guide and continues to release new versions as things change along the route. McClanahan is an accomplished artist and a bonafide Route 66 personality; his gallery is open year-round. He loves to visit with travelers and hear their stories.
Seaba Station is one of the only buildings you’ll encounter in Warwick, but if you’re a motorcycle fan it’s a must-see. This is another museum fashioned out of an old service station that has been slowly restored to its original appearance. You’ll often find clusters of motorbikes outside while a traveling group explores the vintage rolling iron inside.
Aside from the Blue Whale, Oklahoma’s other most well-known attraction is the Round Barn in Arcadia. Originally constructed in 1898, it’s another site that was near destruction before it was restored in the mid-90s; today it’s a bright red beacon in a town of 250. The upstairs loft highlights a beautifully crafted ceiling, and the bottom floor has a gift shop, along with several historic displays that show travelers what life was like when the barn was still serving its original purpose. If you’re getting thirsty, make another stop one-half mile down the road at Pops, a travel plaza that features hundreds of varieties of bottled soda.
Oklahoma City’s sprawling metropolis has seen many alternate alignments of Route 66 over the years. From the driver’s seat, one can see the state capitol building, the neon of the Tower Theater, the giant Braum’s milk bottle on Classen Boulevard and more. In the western suburb of Bethany, the steel spans of the Lake Overholser Bridge bring to mind the days of tail-fin Cadillacs and station wagon vacations.
As the sky opens up west of OKC, towns once again stretch out with many miles in between. A newly restored neon sign atop the Yukon Flour silo can be seen for miles away. El Reno has a beautiful historic fort and several options for sampling one of its famous onion burgers. Sid’s Diner is probably the most well-known, because the restaurant sits on the edge of downtown right on the Mother Road. Not to mention its burgers are superbly delicious.
As travelers cross the Canadian River west of El Reno, they are treated to an amazing sight: The William H. Murray bridge, the route’s longest pony truss bridge. (A pony truss design means the metal supports run alongside the traffic lane but not overhead.) Thirty-eight yellow trusses stretch into the distance, nearly 4,000 feet long. The bridge also was featured in the John Ford classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” a film that brought more attention to the highway when it was released in 1940. In fact, John Steinbeck’s original novel is where the nickname “The Mother Road” was coined.
Beyond the river, the two-lane road weaves through Caddo County. It’s one of the rare segments that still includes original curbs on each side. Another much-photographed roadside landmark sits near the town of Hydro. Lucille’s Service Station served motorists for 60 years before Lucille Hamons died in 2000. Her friendly service earned her the nickname “Mother of the Mother Road.” While Lucille’s is no longer in operation, motorists stop for photos as it is a wonderful example of a two-story service station that was once common along the highway. The design and history of the station was replicated at Lucille’s Roadhouse restaurant in nearby Weatherford, which also is home to the Stafford Air and Space Museum.
Western Oklahoma is not just home to one Route 66 Museum, but two. The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton takes visitors on a historic journey down Route 66 and often hosts special exhibits; the National Route 66 and Transportation Museum in Elk City focuses more on western culture overall and the earlier perspective of Route 66 importance. Each museum provides different, worthwhile experiences if you’re looking to learn more about the road across the decades.
The landscape begins to flatten as you make your way to the Texas border. The winding lanes are occasionally dotted with small communities that are little more than ghost towns today, though they hold evidence of what once was. Canute still has a few old neon signs along the roadside, though their days of buzzing brightly in the night are long past.
Wanderers pass through another truss bridge before entering the town of Sayre. The iconic Beckham County Courthouse also was featured in “The Grapes of Wrath” and looks much like it did back then. Downtown Sayre is quiet most days, but if you see someone walking down the sidewalk, they will give a friendly wave to the passing traveler.
A few miles from the Texas border, cruisers in the town of Erick have an opportunity to witness one of the most unusual experiences along all 2,400 miles of the route. The Sandhills Curiosity Shop is an old brick market adorned with dozens of vintage metal signs. Inside, the walls are covered with a staggering amount of additional roadside memorabilia. It’s not the collectibles that attract visitors, though — it’s the personality. The proprietor, Harley Russell, has been treating visitors to a bawdy musical serenade for years. It’s a surreal experience and one that isn’t appropriate for the kiddos — the self-professed “Redneck Capital of the World” is a crass and quirky place — but you’ll never forget it.
Route 66 has much to offer in Oklahoma: roadside attractions, excellent restaurants, scenic landscapes, small-town charm and bustling city streets. This variety is why Route 66 appeals to so many travelers, both local and international: The road is a showcase of what makes America special.
Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Route 66 book club
Traveling Route 66 has never been easier. Inspiration and tips come easy with guidebooks by Route 66 mainstays. Here’s a roundup of some favorites.
“EZ 66 Guide for Travelers” by Jerry McClanahan
A spiral-bound guidebook for those traveling east or west. Recently updated in itsfourth edition.
“Route 66: The Mother Road” by Michael Wallis
First published in 1990, with a 75th anniversary edition released in 2001, this book has become a must for any Route 66 inquirer.
“Route 66: America’s Longest Small Town” by Jim Hinckley
A virtual road trip telling the stories of the Mother Road.
“Route 66 Crossings: Historic Bridges of the Mother Road” by Jim Ross
A book focused on the bridges spanning the highway’s 2,000-plus miles.
The Route 66 Experience
What is it?
A state-of-the-art interactive center featuring restaurants, exhibits and a drive-in movie theater to showcase the iconic road.
When will it open?
Who are some of the key players involved?
The Route 66 Alliance, which includes Cyrus Avery’s grandson Cyrus Stevens Avery II; Ken Busby of the Tulsa Route 66 Commission, and renowned author/historian Michael Wallis.
Where will it be?
The bank of the Arkansas River near the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza and the historic 11th Street bridge, situated on the hill overlooking the river.
Avery is known as the “Father of Route 66” due to his involvement in the creation of the Mother Road. The 11th Street bridge, which Avery spearheaded, was a key influence in bringing 66 to Tulsa in the first place. It was the safe way to cross the Arkansas River — the first major multi-span concrete bridge in Oklahoma.
This guide is by no means comprehensive; there’s so much more to see.
Tulsa banker Tom Bennett and Rutgers University professor Dr. Ronald Quincy began their Route 66 road trip in Chicago in August. The longtime friends — each age 66 — spent several days traveling the Mother Road to Santa Monica, California. Have you recently taken a trip down Route 66? Be sure to share photos of your trip on social media with the hashtag #OK66!