Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine


by Jim McCarty

Photograph these
While you’re here
The wrecking ball
Is looming near

The owner of John's Modern Cabins considered demolishing the site until Emily Priddy, a member of the Friends of the Mother Road, convinced her to reconsider. The old cabins were closed to the public not long after Interstate 44 replaced Route 66.

The freshly painted Burma Shave style signs bearing this epitaph stand in stark contrast to the faded glory that was John’s Modern Cabins, a cluster of log and frame structures near Newburg that once beckoned travelers along Route 66. Like many attractions along the Mother Road, as Route 66 is known, the cabins John Dausch opened in 1951 and closed shortly after Interstate 44 came into being almost became a memory.

All along the Mother Road, from Chicago to Los Angeles, drivers desperately search for some reminder of Route 66. The old roadbed is there. But increasingly the delicate curves of art deco diners, the glaring blaze of neon signs and the unusual shapes of roadside attractions are disappearing.

While some towns embrace the fact that Route 66 once passed through, elsewhere it’s difficult to find any reminder of the most celbrated stretch of highway in America.

As the sign says, John’s Modern Cabins were destined for the wrecking ball. Their dilapidated condition posed a liability problem for the owner. But almost too late, the cabins found a friend.

The Mother Road crosses the Big Piney River at Devil's Elbow on a vintage bridge with arched supports. In some places nothing but the old roadbed remains of the historic road that was once portrayed in songs, movies, television shows and books.

Emily Priddy, a Route 66 enthusiast from Belleville, Ill., spent six months conducting research to write an article on the cabins. When she learned of the cabins’ fate, she posted a message on the Internet asking why the cabins should be saved.

She sent the owner a package of materials that included 15 e-mailed notes from Route 66 enthusiasts all over the country, printouts of seven web sites including one written entirely in French that featured pictures of the cabins, a calendar featuring the cabins and three mounted photographs.

“The owner relented a little, saying she thought maybe three of the cabins might be salvageable,” Emily says. “We offered to raise money for a fence to put around them while we tried to find funds and volunteers to repair the cabins.”

Since then the National Park Service has gotten involved through its Route 66 Heritage Corridor Program. A photographer and an historical architect visited the site and a work day is a distinct possibility.

When things slow down inside, Gred Garlock keeps Route 66 clean in front of the Tri-County Restaurant near Villa Ridge. This historic cafe was once called the Diamonds. The second structure on the site, it closed and nearly succombed to the wrecking ball but was revived as a truck stop. The truck stop closed too but the restaurant lives on.

Out of this and similar efforts, a new group called “Friends of the Mother Road” came into being. The all-volunteer group is dedicated to saving what’s left of Route 66.

“What we’ve been doing, it’s almost triage,” says Kip Welborn, a St. Louis attorney who is one of the group’s founders. “One of these days you are going to drive down the road and all you’re going to see is the highway. People drive along this road because it takes them back. Instead of driving on four-lane monstrosities where you don’t see anything you are driving through towns instead of around them, driving past stores, restaurants and motels.”

But saving 66 could be a daunting task, and members of the group agree the rescue efforts are almost too late. “Unfortunately, we have little memoriums every once in awhile because another one fell,” Kip says.

Every town along the route has its tale of woe. Gone forever are the stately oaks and streamline moderne curves of the famed Coral Court Motel in St. Louis. Despite the efforts of preservationists, the art deco masterpiece was demolished in 1995 to make way for a subdivision.

Another St. Louis landmark, the Stanley Court-Tel, is also in the way of progress. Expansion at Lambert Field will take out the motel where Apollo astronauts once stayed.

While few Route 66 landmarks remain in Lebanon, one of the most famous is the Munger Moss Motel.

The red deer of the Ozarks Motel sign in St. Clair finally gave way to the elements. An historic roadside park near Leasburg closed recently, victim of heavy dumping. Springfield’s Cambell 66 trucking firm, with its famous “Snortin’ Norton” mascot and “Humpin’ to Please” slogan is no more.

“It’s accelerating at a rapid pace,” says Gary Adkins, a Route 66 enthusiast from St. Louis. “Land values are going up. A lot of these buildings, the old mom and pop restaurants and gas stations and motels, at one time were on the edges of towns and are now in prime real estate areas. They are eating them up alive. We are getting car washes and quick shops and things like that in their place.”

Gary puts some of the loss down to money. “We can sit there and say, ‘wow, this building has a lot of history and it was really neat in its day, but now we can put a gas station here and make a lot of money.’ So that’s what we do.”

It was Interstate 44 that killed Route 66. The highway bypassed the little towns that once relied on Route 66 travelers for support. And while some businesses like Meramec Caverns near Stanton and Lebanon’s famous Munger Moss Motel found ways to keep the tourists coming, other businesses like John’s Modern Cabins gave up.

At least one Route 66 businessman thinks I-44 isn’t finished with its damage. Ed Goodridge, who owns Vernelle’s Motel near Newburg, has been in business along Route 66 for 40 years.

When Route 66 gave way to Interstate 44 many motels were left too far off the beaten path to survive. Vernelle's Motel made it past the original transition, but I-44 may get him yet, says owner Ed Goodridge. Plans to straighten the curves on the Interstate will leave the old motel out of view of passing motorists.

He says Vernelle’s 12 rooms offer a little nostalgia to folks traveling the Mother Road. “We’ve tried to persevere,” he says of the motel, which ironically is just a stone’s throw from John’s Modern Cabins. “It’s not been easy. We replaced the whole ball of wax, added microwaves and refrigerators so people can stay by the month. We put in an antique and curio shop with Route 66 items.”

But Ed thinks plans to straighten the curves on I-44 in front of his motel spell the end for Vernelle’s. “We’re going to be off the road,” he says. “No visibility here at all. They are cutting our throats.”

Further down the road in Lebanon the town’s movers and shakers have awoke to the fact that Route 66 is important to the town’s economy. A committee has been formed to preserve what’s left, which isn’t much.

“We’re too late to save some of these places,” admits Bill Wheeler, events coordinator for the Lebanon Civic Center.

“In Laclede County we don’t have much left except the roadbed itself. One of the first things this committee is going to do is go out and look at these spots and see if we can’t stop time from taking out any more.”

Up and down the great road, the story is the same: save what’s left, pick your battles, preserve what you can. In Lebanon the preservation committee plans to make a survey of Laclede County’s Route 66 sites. Old photos will be located and paired with modern shots of the same site so visitors can relive some of the road’s glory days.

Plans are in the works for a Route 66 museum and research center to be housed in the town’s new library. “We have people come, average three or four a week, and say, ‘Where can I go see something?’ ” Wheeler says. “We don’t have many places to send them other than the Munger Moss.”

The sign from Keys Cafe is one of the many artifacts on display at Route 66 State Park.

If all seems lost, there have been some success stories. When the Friends of the Mother Road learned the fate of the Stanley Cout-Tel, they scrambled to save some portion of it for the future. They hope to salvage at least the motel’s sign and put it on display where others can see it.

They discovered the city of Eureka planned to tear down another 66 landmark, the Pacific 66 Liquor sign, which features a huge 66 made from yellow light bulbs.

The group wrote letters and appealed to the city of Eureka, which granted a six-month moratorium on the sign. Out of this effort Kip hopes a model ordinance for sign preservation will be created.

When the Coral Court closed one unit of the motel was moved brick by brick to the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis County. One of the motel’s faded pink signs was salvaged too and is on display at Route 66 State Park near Eureka.

The park holds great hope for those who want to save Route 66’s attractions. The nation’s only Route 66 state park is located at what was once Times Beach. The town closed when dioxin was found on its streets and a massive clean up ensued.

After the clean up ended the state turned the site into a park which opened in 1999. Built in 1935, the visitor’s center itself is a 66 attraction. It was once a rowdy roadhouse known first as the Bridgehead Inn and later as Steiny’s. A section of Route 66 that includes the Meramec River bridge passes through the park.

A new state park near the site of the once-condemned environmental clean-up site Times Beach, honors Route 66.

While the park is still a work in progress, it houses important artifacts from the Mother Road including part of Gary Adkin’s extensive collection of Route 66 memorabilia. Gary, a volunteer at the park, also loaned the Snortin’ Norton sign he and his son salvaged from a pile of debris when the trucking firm’s office building was razed.

Kip loaned an original Burma Shave sign and the park also has an original Route 66 sign. Other priceless items wait in storage until the building can be renovated.

Outside hangs the sign from the defunct Keys Cafe in Villa Ridge. Efforts are underway to move more threatened signs to the park, including the huge Arch Motel sign in St. Clair.

Relocating signs and buildings concerns those involved in saving 66 landmarks. But often it’s the only choice. “It troubles me a lot,” Kip says. “But if we can’t save the place at least we can try to save part of it. If we’ve got to move it, if there’s no other way, then we’ve got to move it.”

He says the group plans to document every aspect of landmarks before they are moved, so that later an exhibit can be created that explains each location’s history and importance.

Glenn "Wrink" Wrinkle was born on Route 66 near Hazelgreen. You can find just about anything at Wrink's Market, which has been in business for 53 years on the Mother Road.

Other states have had tremendous success in preserving their Route 66 landmarks. If Missouri is late getting started, it still has great attractions worthy of the effort. Pacific’s Red Cedar Inn, a log structure dating to the 1930s, is a wonderful alternative to fast food.

Tri-County Restaurant was once known as the Diamonds. It survived a fire, was rebuilt and then moved up the road several miles to what the owners thought would be a better location closer to Pacific. Ironically the new Diamonds closed, but Tri-County remains in business behind its curved-wall dining room.

In Lebanon, besides the world-famous Munger Moss, Route 66 travelers can stop for a cold soda or lunch meat at Wrink’s Market, still in business after 53 years on Route 66. If anything is in danger of being lost along the route it’s people like Glenn “Wrink” Wrinkle, who predates the old road by three years.

“I am its alpha and omega,” Wrink says of his little market. “It was born with me and it will die with me, I guess.”

Stop by and Wrink will relate tales of life along 66. He’ll tell you of the time he traveled the Mother Road himself in a Straight 8 Pontiac. For awhile you will be transported back in time, and like others will recognize why Route 66 deserves to be saved.

“If you don’t it will be gone forever,” says Gary. “If people don’t understand what Route 66 is and what its origins are, if the younger generation doesn’t get involved, then it will disappear.”

For information on the Friends of the Mother Road write to Kip Welborn, 3947 Russell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63110 or e-mail r.welborn@worldnet.att.net. You can learn about Route 66 State Park at www.mostateparks.com/route66.htm or by calling (636) 938-7198. The Missouri Route 66 Association maintains a web site at www.missouri66.org.

Rural Missouri December 2014
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