Route 66 still has some kicks as the legendary "Mother Road" nears its 90-year milestone.
To celebrate the Nov. 11 anniversary, the Missouri History Museum has developed "Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis." The 6,000-square-foot exhibit is now open and will run through July 16, 2017.
The iconic places along the various routes the road took through St. Louis are the heart of the show. The region is still rich with some the road's lasting treasures. The original path, or "alignment," lasted until 1933 and came across the McKinley Bridge into the city.
"We tell the story very quickly that if you were coming west on Route 66, when you entered St. Louis you had to enter via a bridge. Five bridges over the course of the road's history carried people into St. Louis at one time or another," said Sharon Smith, the 27-year curator of civic and personal identity for the Missouri Historical Society.
The original 1926 road stretched 2,448 miles and was conceived to connect the main streets of urban and rural towns between Chicago and Los Angeles. The diagonal path of Route 66 cut across eight states, with St. Louis being the largest city along the roadway. Early on, route developer Cyrus Avery came up with the "Main Street of America" slogan as a promotional idea.
The novelty of the new cross-country highway established national brand names like "Phillips 66" and gave rise to local roadside icons like the Casa Grande Motel on Watson Road and the Parkmoor family of curbside restaurants. Today, relics from these places have been preserved by a network of dedicated collectors.
Smith was tasked in 2011 to visit the collection of Missouri Historical Society trustee Greg Rhomberg. At the time, Rhomberg was uncertain about a Route 66 exhibit being based on the items in his collection. In 2014, Missouri History Museum President Frances Levine visited the collection after the museum borrowed some items from Rhomberg for the "American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" exhibit.
"At that point, we kind of knew we were doing this Route 66 exhibit," Smith said.
Eleven years ago this month, Rhomberg acquired the neon sign from the Casa Grande Motel. At the time, the motel was about to be demolished to make way for a printing facility, but motel owner Jack Bender spared the property.
"The sign was in storage," Rhomberg said. "Only because of the exhibit – that's what prompted me to do a complete restoration on the sign."
The majority of the "Route 66" exhibit is dedicated to St. Louis artifacts from the route such as the Casa Grande Motel sign. Smith and crew designed installations in these areas using rotary payphones, AM car radios and table-side juke boxes to broadcast interviewees who were at historic locations along the Gravois/Chippewa/Watson alignment of the road.
Visitors can hear testimonials from employees and customers of establishments like The Parkmoor and Ted Drewes' original custard stand.
"We have so many iconic places in the city. It's kind of like a best kept secret, so we're getting to really educate folks about St. Louis as they come through the exhibit," Smith said.
The original custard making machine from Drewes' Chippewa location waits for visitors across from The Parkmoor artifacts. Smith said Drewes himself visited the museum to see his first machine.
"For him, time was transcended. It was classic to watch him go through that," Smith said.
The Missouri History Museum was fortunate enough to get the smock worn by Mrs. Drewes Sr. on loan from the family for the exhibit. More artifacts from Drewes' 66-era were donated by the families of longtime employees.
Of the 23 pieces Rhomberg's firm, Antique Warehouse, has on display, one of his favorites is the Chain of Rocks Park sign. The park dates back to 1896 and was near the Chain of Rocks amusement park, a popular stop on the route when the road crossed the Mississippi north of the city at the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The bridge is memorialized at the entrance to the exhibit.
A 1947 all-steel bumper car from the period before the amusement park caught fire in the 1970s is on display near the one-of-a-kind sign.
"He has a wonderful collection and he takes extremely good care of it," Smith said.
Rhomberg wanted to give friends an opportunity to contribute their vehicles and artifacts to the exhibit as well. The Willy's touring car on display comes from friends June and Ben Hilliker and the Norton road cycle is owned by the Mungenast Classic Automobiles and Motorcycles Museum. The convertible Corvette is from friends Kim and Stephen Brauer.
"I had a lot of help putting this exhibit together over the last six months," Rhomberg said. "That's when crunch time basically started for us and with all of the great talent, much of it was volunteers."
A large panel in the shape of a federal roadway shield displays a list of over 50 contributors to the exhibit. Visitors will have a chance to leave their mark early on at a large wall projection map set up to show a visual record of attendees' hometowns.
"We want to know where you're from, and we find that international travelers are really looking for Route 66," Smith said.
"Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis" is open daily and admission is free. The Missouri History Museum is located at Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.mohistory.org.