Springfield’s Park Central East — otherwise known as Route 66 — is shown circa 1927. The Woodruff Building is on the left; the Colonial Hotel is across the street on the right. (Photo courtesy The History Museum on the Square)
Note: This article was written in 2016 for Route 66’s 90th birthday.
Ninety years ago today, Route 66 was born in Springfield. Even then, the city’s people knew the date was significant: Downtown streets were closed to allow more than 3,000 visitors free rein to roam, dancing and festivities went into the night, and 50 city blocks were lavishly decked out to mark the occasion.
Not a bit of that celebration, however, was in honor of Route 66.
Instead, those thousands of people were in town for the 1926 Rotary District Convention, an annual meeting that drew four states’ worth of civic-minded leaders to Springfield. But amid those busy, bustling goings-on, a small downtown meeting would forever change history. That meeting resulted in the naming of Route 66, a highway from Chicago to Los Angeles that would soon become the most iconic road in the world.
Both of Springfield’s newspapers dedicated substantial space to previewing the two-day Rotary District Convention, which was held April 29-30, 1926.
It’s hard to envision how big — both in size and importance — that Rotary convention was. By all appearances, Springfield was working to brand itself as a convention city: An article in The Springfield Leader on Dec. 20, 1925 noted that seven conventions had already been booked for 1926, which would collectively bring approximately 10,000 visitors to town.
The efforts were supported by the completion of the Shrine Mosque, the Midwest’s largest venue, in 1923. Having that building was such a big deal — no pun intended — that the Leader claimed that the “Shriners have given Springfield one of her great assets” through its presence.
After all, before it was built, “Springfield could not entertain any convention ringing here more than 1,000 persons, for there was no other building located centrally which afforded sufficient size,” reported the Leader on May 26, 1926. “Now, however, any organization can successfully conduct a convention here, and can bring as many delegates as they choose, and all can comfortably attend all sessions.”
According to The Springfield Leader on May 16, 1926, “the architectural beauty of the huge (Shrine) mosque not only enhances the city, but the great auditorium has enabled various organizations to bring big conventions to the city.”
That said, it was difficult for the Rotarians to accept defeat when the 1925 conference was given to Fort Smith, Ark., instead of Springfield. But that decision bred an even greater determination to net the 1926 conference.
According to the Leader on March 10, 1925, “local Rotarians will literally advertise Springfield to the skies in an effort to bring the 1926 convention here. They will charter a special train, and will swoop down on Fort Smith with banners, and Springfield, Missouri, will be placed foremost in the minds of the Rotarians who will attend from other cities. The local club lost the 1925 convention, but they are determined to bring the next year’s meeting here.”
The Rotarians were successful: On April 24, the same newspaper noted that “plans are already being started toward making the convention the greatest in the history of the Rotary club.”
Springfield’s 1926 Rotary convention held “one of the largest and most spectacular parades ever seen by the Springfield public,” reported the Leader on April 29. (Photo courtesy of The History Museum on the Square)
Over the next year, local newspapers regularly ran information about the upcoming event, which leaders saw as something the entire community should support. By the time April 25, 1926, rolled around, locals were ready for the “invasion” of those visitors, nearly half of which the Springfield Republican noted would be arriving by car:
“Numerous information stations, officered by Boy Scouts of Springfield, will be located on all the main roads and highways leading into the city and just outside the city limits on the day prior to and the days upon with the district Rotary convention will be held here, in order to assist the hundreds of visitors to the convention who will drive here in their automobiles.”
Growing importance of good roads
The note about auto travel was a sign of the times: In those days, road trips were epic in both desirability and difficulty.
“Up until the ‘30s, taking a car trip was a real adventure, and not always a good one,” says Susan Croce Kelly, an expert and author on Route 66. “I think probably, like a lot of other things, the very rich and the people who couldn’t quite put it together were the ones in the cars. It was either a roughing-it adventure, or just what you had to do once people had cars.”
Instead of paved surfaces, roads were often mud-washed paths that were filled with ruts — and, since there wasn’t much coordination between states, often led nowhere. Considering the narrow lanes, and lack of consistent signage and speed limits, safety was also an issue. “It wasn’t for the faint of heart to travel by car,” says Kelly.
But there was still a desire to hit the road, especially after popularity of the automobile began to grow in the late 1800s.
“It’s almost incomprehensible to understand how much (good roads were) a big public issue,” says Thomas Peters, dean of Library Services at Missouri State University and author of a soon-to-be-published book on Springfieldian John T. Woodruff. “So they would have Good Roads rallies. They had one in Marshfield in the teens … where like 3,000 people showed up for a day-long Good Roads meeting in Marshfield, and the population of Marshfield was like 1,000.”
On July 20, 1915, a Good Roads convention was held in Marshfield. A special song, entitled “The Ozarks Trail Leads to Marshfield Town,” was even written for the occasion. (Photo courtesy of the Webster County Historical Museum)
By 1924, there were around 250 groups trying to help resolve the issue of roads. “There were all these people trying to figure out ways to get from one place to another,” says Kelly. “Some of them were real visionaries, others of them were nut cases. But it made the world a very interesting place in those years.”
One of those people was a Oklahoma man by the name of Cyrus Avery. This man, visiting Springfield from Tulsa during the Rotary convention, was to become known as the Father of Route 66.
Naming the Route
But as it is with birth, much time, love and labor was involved beforehand.
In Avery’s case, it’s not like Route 66 came to be in one weekend. He’d spent decades working for better roads: At various times, he’d headed a national trails association, was president of the Associated Highways of America (AHA) and had served as chair of Oklahoma’s highway commission.
In November 1924, he joined the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). It was his presence there that connected him a joint board to help select, lay out and help market a system for U.S. highways. Prior to this board, states and local organizations largely worked independent of each other: Something had to be done to make a system that connected the entire country.
“They came up with a numbering scheme that we still use today,” says Peters. “The east-west roads were going to be even-numbered, and the ones that ended in zero were going to be the main east-west highways.”
One of those roads, originating in Chicago, went through southwest Missouri and Tulsa before going on to the West Coast. Avery thought that his road — and it undoubtedly was “his” road — should be named U.S. 60.
It was a suggestion that was met with much opposition, especially from the folks in Kentucky who didn’t think it made sense to number a road that went from Chicago to Los Angeles that way when it wasn’t a straight east-west route. Another reason they were upset was because giving up 60 meant that they’d lose their only chance to have one of the “important” zero-numbered routes going through their state.
“So this kind of conjures up ‘War Between the States,'” says Peters. “And you know, Kentucky was a neutral state during the ‘War of Northern Aggression,’ and they’re being further disrespected by not having a numbered highway. So they wanted the 60 to go from Newport News, Va. to the West Coast.”
The debate went on for months: It was suggested that the Chicago-to-California route be labeled U.S. 62, which Avery and B.H. Piepmeier, chief engineer for Missouri’s highway commission, nixed. Another suggestion was made to label the section from Springfield to the West Coast as U.S. 60 North. This was also met with objection.
By the time April 1926 rolled around, the debate was a rising source of frustration for everyone involved, including Avery and Piepmeier. But after months of pondering and pandering back and forth, Avery and Piepmeier were forced to act when Kentucky threatened to get congressmen involved.
“I think Avery and Piepmeier and the others were like, ‘If that happens, we’re cooked,’” says Peters. “So they knew that they had to get this resolved.”
On April 6, 1926, Avery sent a letter to Thomas H. MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, indicating that he would take the matter up with Piepmeier and they would try to compromise.
Where the duo ultimately discussed the matter was at the Rotary convention in Springfield.
Convening at the convention
Springfield’s Colonial Hotel was integral to the 1926 Rotary convention: The Leader reported that a dance at the hotel, held the first night of the convention, was still going strong “and not until after 1 o’clock did the crowd disband to snatch a few hours sleep before it was time to a rise today and continue with entertainments, celebrations and festivities.”
It’s safe to say that Avery, a Rotarian, planned to be in Springfield for the Rotary convention before the road-naming business came about. At the very least, he knew the convention was going on.
But an examination of the Leader yields the greatest hint of Avery’s plans to be in Springfield: A full-page ad promoting Tulsa as a perfect destination for the 1927 convention. Ever the promoter, Avery was likely in town not only to attend the convention, but also to promote “his” town to the hordes of businessmen who would be ideal visitors for Tulsa.
If that was the case, it was a success right there: At the end of the weekend, Tulsa was named the conference’s location for 1927.
Piepmeier was also in town that weekend. Newspapers reported his announcement that Glenstone Avenue would be designated as a state highway — but they also noted something else.
“Piepmeier was here, he said, to confer with representatives of the highway engineering department of Oklahoma relative to the federal system of numbering highways that form a part of the federal system,” reported the Republican on May 1.
Whether or not Piepmeier planned to be in Springfield before the road-naming debate is unknown.
Since it’s likely that Avery knew of the conference months in advance, with a bit of historic conjecture it could be guessed that Avery and Piepmeier communicated and decided the event would be a good midway point to meet and hash things out once and for all.
Regardless of how those arrangements were made, Avery skipped part of the convention to meet with Piepmeier and Oklahoma state highway engineer John Page. Depending on exactly when the meeting took place, perhaps he missed the reports of breakout breakfast meetings, the group singing at 10:5o a.m., or an organ recital later that afternoon.
Another question is related to the meeting’s location. The men could’ve met at the Colonial Hotel, where Avery and Page probably had accommodations. The hotel would’ve offered space to meet, in perhaps one of those rented rooms or in a restaurant. However, since the hotel was hosting so many people for the conference, it would’ve likely been a quite noisy and frantic enviroment.
Another possible location was directly across the street. “Some people think they met in the Woodruff Building, because (John) Woodruff was a good roads enthusiast,” says Peters. “(Woodruff) wasn’t really appointed to a state agency or anything like that, where Avery and Piepmeier were. So he wasn’t directly involved in the numbering scheme, but he had an interest in it.”
And Woodruff knew the men, too. He’d even seen Piepmeier less than two weeks previously, when the engineer was in Springfield to give a speech about Missouri’s state road system. Woodruff gave the welcome for the meeting, which was also held at the Colonial Hotel. (Who knows: Perhaps Woodruff knew that Avery was coming to town for the Rotary convention and suggested that Piepmeier come back then so they could all chat.)
Regardless of where the men convened (and how they all ended up in Springfield), the point is that they met. When that happened, the group examined the list of still-available road numbers and “somebody, either Page or Avery, said, ‘Hey, 66 is still available,’” says Peters.
According to Kelly’s book, “Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery,” the number 66 was probably attractive for a number of reasons:
“It may have been that (Avery) realized how easily the number sixty-six rolls off the tongue. With his promotional bent, he may have seen design possibilities in the rounded back of the double sixes. And it is not unlikely, given the era’s interest in the occult and spiritual, that at least one of the three men recognized the double sixes as a master number. In numerology, this particular master number was known to bring material pleasures and success.”
In the end, both Avery and Piepmeier agreed that the number was an acceptable choice — and around 3 p.m., a telegram was sent from Springfield to Washington D.C. requesting the number.
At the time, the men didn’t know if that settled things. It’s likely that Piepmeier, who had to attend an event in Macon, Mo., the next day left town as quickly as possible. He might’ve even left before the telegram was sent. After all, considering the roads at that time, he probably had a long trip: According to a 1991 report by Arthur Krim, a founder of the Society for Commercial Archeology, if Piepmeier traveled by car, it probably took him around six hours one way to reach Springfield.
Avery and Page, however, probably stayed in town. Rotarian festivities continued into the night: The previous evening, the Leader reported that “jazz was king and at his right and left hands sat merriment and happy abandonment as first princes of the land during the entire course of Rotarian celebrations and festivities in Springfield.” More of the same, including dinner and dancing, was set for that evening.
Yet while Avery and Page surely joined in the festivities, it’s likely they didn’t realize just how much they had to celebrate. It wasn’t until weeks later that they heard back regarding their suggestion of Route 66, and months until it was officially approved.
But approved it was, launching a story and beginning a worldwide sensation that today turns 90.
“It means something to just about everybody,” says Peters of the route, which he notes was not any different than any other road. “They built that into the amazing thing that it is today. This iconic image of Route 66. They did that — after they lost. That’s what the amazing thing is to me.”
Want to know more?
Route 66 looking east in September 1927. Note the newly installed Route 66 sign on the right side of the street. (Photo courtesy of The History Museum on the Square)
Susan Croce Kelly’s books, “Father of Route 66” and “Route 66,” provided invaluable information for this story. She regularly gives presentations on various topics about Route 66, and an updated schedule of her appearances can be found on her website.
Thomas Peters’ book, “John T. Woodruff, of Springfield, Missouri, in the Ozarks: An Encyclopedic Biography,” will be printed in 2016.