2,400-mile Route 66 stretches between Chicago and Los Angeles.
The pavement’s presence isn’t what made Route 66 such a success. Instead, it was the people: Folks who breathed life into the memory-making, states-wide street that all of America could call its own.
One of those individuals was Cy Avery, a promoter from Tulsa who drove the road into the national spotlight after it officially began in November 1926.
Another was one of Avery’s biggest fans: An author named Susan Croce Kelly, who today lives near Lake of the Ozarks. Nearly 60 years after the route began, Kelly and photographer Quinta Scott published “Route 66: The Highway and Its People,” a photographic essay that captured stories along the road.
It was the first of its kind. The book came three years after the road was decommissioned, before it was back in vogue, and a time when it was a crumbling shadow of its former self.
And it led a national fascination down the Main Street of America.
How it began
Kelly’s awareness of Route 66 began at an early age. She grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, and heard stories of the world-famous road from her mother, who spent her childhood in southwest Missouri. “She would say, ‘This is the most famous road in the world,’” recalls Kelly. “I do remember that, because I was like, ‘Sure.’ Even at 5.”
Despite Kelly’s initial reaction to the route, she was born into historic preservation: Her great-aunt was Lucile Morris Upton, a longtime Springfield journalist famous for covering Ozarks nooks and crannies.
As an adult, Kelly followed in Upton’s footsteps, also spending time as a newspaper reporter in Springfield in the mid-1970s. During that time, the Mother Road caught her interest — especially a ghost-like portion near Halltown, Mo., around 20 miles from Springfield.
“It just evokes the 1930s,” she said in a 1989 article in the Springfield News-Leader. “You feel like you’re going back in time to a certain extent.”
It wasn’t until 1979, however, when that fascination began to grow into something more. She was introduced to Scott at a truck stop along Route 66, which led to the duo working on several articles for newspapers about the route; Scott would shoot photos, and Kelly would write the text.
“We started out, ‘Tell us about your building. Tell us about your business,’” recalls Kelly. “And then we began to do serious oral histories – what happened in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s and ’50s.”
Scott and Kelly found people ready and willing to share their stories. Looking back, Kelly believes part of that was because the people they spoke to were behind businesses along the road.
“People were used to talking to anybody who walked in the door because they might spend money, … and they were invested in the highway,” says Kelly. “I think I paid (attention), not because it was important, but because they were storytellers.”
They heard about the route’s early days, when Avery and others promoted it into the history books. “In Oklahoma, they said Cy Avery ‘invented’ Route 66,” says Kelly. “It’s one of those words you remember because it was so bizarre.”
There were stories of the “Bunion Derby,” a transcontinental foot race in 1928 that drew national attention. And, of early trips down the road that were perhaps more dangerous than desirable. “It wasn’t for the faint of heart to travel by car,” she says. “But these intrepid people would get out there, and they’d write about it.”
Books such as “The Grapes of Wrath” showed a trip many families — heading west, and to a better life — began to make. And few years later, the journalists learned of World War II taking soldiers up and down its path.
“And then they came home,” says Kelly. “That’s when it was fun. … My father’s generation came back from World War II, and companies offered paid vacations for the first time. So people could go.”
Those hoards of travelers, however, also resulted in horrific stories along the aptly nicknamed “Bloody 66.” And later, there were tales of downturn when the people’s road left them behind. Such stories painted an authentic portrait of America’s Main Street; one told by the folks who saw the road’s rise and felt it fall — and who were quickly disappearing.
Becoming a book
Those conversations took place over a near six-year period. And, eventually, it seemed like the timing was right for more. “Route 66 was kind of on the radar, and if we were going to write a book, ‘It’s got to be now,’” recalls Kelly.
“I had sent a draft chapter and outline and some of Quinta’s pictures to the University of Oklahoma Press,” she said in 1989. “They wrote back in a couple of weeks and said this is great, go for it. So I quit my job.”
Over the next year, Kelly dedicated her time to creating a book based on nearly 225 interviews the duo gathered. One of the biggest challenges, she says, was figuring out how to present the material. “You’ve got the states, you’ve got the timeline, you’ve got the businesses,” she notes, mentioning that the book was ultimately presented by decade.
It was published in 1988. “The marketing people at (the University of Oklahoma Press) knew what they had,” says Kelly. “They did posters, I was lined up to do radio interviews for six months or seven months every week with different people. They really promoted the book.”
And the country took note — even the Wall Street Journal, which published a review about the book on Feb. 8, 1989.
“‘Route 66’ doesn’t ignore the names and dates and political decisions of traditional history. But its appeal lies in the graceful way it explores the impact of that long black ribbon the lives of the people who lived beside it and in the book’s explanation of how U.S. 66 ‘became a highway the country could not forget.’
“Today, as this book’s text and photographs emphasize, there’s not much left besides the legend. The two-lane blacktop has crumbled and most of the people who lived beside the old road have moved away or died. But while the new interstates are faster and safer, it is impossible not to miss old Route 66. Fortunately, the words and pictures of this delightful book preserve the memories of a road that ran through everyone’s life.”
After “Route 66” was published, things began to change. Other books — including Michael Wallis’ “Route 66: The Mother Road” — began to feed the public’s growing interest. The Route 66 Association of Missouri was founded in 1990 (today tirelessly promoted by Tommy and Glenda Pike), and sections were gradually included on the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the National Route 66 Preservation Bill which allocated $10 million for restoring and preserving historic features along the road.
Today, Route 66 has become a cultural institution, immortalized through the memories of thousands who make the trip each year. And its fame has spread far beyond the country’s borders: Each year, multitudes of foreign visitors specifically come to the United States to drive Route 66. It’s a fascination that’s evident, among other places, through Facebook, where a simple search reveals associations for countries such as Italy, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Japan, Brazil and the Netherlands (where they’re actually having a party to celebrate the route’s 90th birthday on Nov. 11!)
One of those visitors proves its international fascination. “I keep coming back because there’re always great people to meet along the road, and I do love to listen to their stories,” says Lucia Laura, a photographer who lives in Milan, Italy, via email. “There’ s always something new to discover, something that I left behind on my previous trip.”
Laura has been completely down Route 66 twice, but other sections more often — and, even though she loves the scenery, it’s not what she enjoys the most.
“What I love most of Route 66 are all the people I meet, their smiles and their stories attract me like a magnet.”
After “Route 66” was published, Kelly didn’t have definite plans for a second book. But, when asked in 1989, she did mention that the idea was on her mind — and that a possible topic might be Avery.
“Cyrus Avery as a person just fascinates me,” said Kelly back then. “I can’t believe he didn’t know people like Henry Ford, because they were all working on the same thing — really changing this country from one kind of place into another kind of place.”
That percolating plan, however, was put on hold when Kelly stepped away from the spotlight. Life circumstances took her to Chicago and Texas, before coming back to the Ozarks. “(Route 66) really kind of faded into the background,” she says.
But the interest in Avery didn’t go away — and in 2014, it manifested into Kelly’s second book. But “Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery” tells more than Avery’s involvement with the Mother Road. It also recounts his efforts in many other public service ventures, and proves his legacy extends far beyond his lifetime.
After all, Avery died in 1963, seven years after his road was bypassed by the National Interstate Highway Act. Despite his visionary status, even Avery couldn’t have foreseen the impact his road would have nearly a century after it began:
“Today, visitors from all over the world travel to see what is left of Route 66,” writes Kelly. “Some actually ship historic cars and motorcycles from Europe and Asia to ‘motor west, on the highway that’s the best.’ Others band together on buses or caravans for the 2,400-mile trip. Still others come alone to soak up a part of the United States that most Americans no longer know.”
Like Avery, Kelly’s work helped launch a national fascination with Route 66 — and, especially with her first book, preserved a piece of Americana that today would be impossible to capture today.
“The thing that made our book such a fabulously lucky accident was the timing,” says Kelly. “We were interviewing people who’d been out there in the 1920s. We interviewed a guy who had helped pave Route 66. You know, they’re not there (anymore).”
Want to learn more?
Susan Croce Kelly is pictured at the 2016 Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield.
Kelly is a popular presenter about Route 66 and Avery, and regularly visits Springfield, Mo., for its Birthplace of Route 66 Festival (where she was honored with the John T. Woodruff Award in 2015 for her support of Route 66). Visit her website for more information.
Both books are also available for loan from the Springfield-Greene County Library District.
The Highway and Its People, Everett Kennell, Springfield News-Leader, 1989
The Road That Ran Through Everyone’s Life, John R. Alden, the Wall Street Journal, 1989