Tag Archives: MO

Missouri Hick BBQ sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Heckuva hick

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Unlike Bill Johnson’s in Phoenix or Frank’s in San Antonio, the Missouri Hick is still open for business.

Missouri Hick BBQ sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And hallelujah for that, because it’s hard to find better barbecue than this.

Missouri Hick BBQ sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Plus, I am a sucker for anywhere that takes local quirks, dials them up to eleven and turns them into decor.

Missouri Hick BBQ sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The place was just about empty, as we didn’t roll into town until just before closing time (we had come a long, long way since our early breakfast in Chicago that morning, and even our afternoon snack was hours in the past).

Missouri Hick BBQ sketch by Chandler O'Leary

But luckily for us, they were still happy to feed us—and we were more than happy to chow down.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The tourist trade

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

One of the grandest Route 66 traditions is the souvenir shop—or as it is more frequently named here, the trading post. And few Mother Road icons have such a long history. Starting as supply hubs and early post offices for fur traders, wagon trains, survey expeditions, gold prospectors and the like, trading posts were bastions of commerce and news in remote places.

The contemporary version of the trading post has sprung out of twentieth-century myths of the Old West: modern tourists wanted to experience a slice of the Pony Express, or send postcards from Boot Hill, or bring home a piece of Navajo jewelry—in air-conditioned comfort, of course.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And nobody has cashed in on trading posts quite like Route 66: the Jackrabbit, the Continental Divide, Tee Pee Curios, the list goes on. On the Mother Road, the term “trading post” has become synonymous with “tourist trap”—many of these places combine commerce, entertainment and the flavor of the Wild West (or in the case above, the Hillbilly Ozarks). Far beyond a simple pit stop or junk store, some have more in common with theme parks.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And while some have their roots in the actual Old West, many of these pit stops were built after Route 66 was run through. (Subsequently, in places where the modern Interstate diverted traffic away from 66, many of these trading posts are crumbling or closed altogether.)

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Thanks to historical examples like Hudson’s Bay Company, or the Hubbell Trading Post on the Navajo Nation, which has operated on the pawn (barter) system since the 1870s, we tend to associate trading posts with Indian Country. Route 66 is a prime example: half of the route (over 1300 miles) crosses through Native America, connecting more than 25 Indigenous nations. And since the vast majority of the Mother Road’s trading posts (and nearly all of those west of the Texas-New Mexico line) deal in Native goods, it’s no wonder a road trip through the Southwest makes us think of kachinas and beadwork.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Though many of these shops are run by white owners, some are owned and operated by tribal members themselves.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Regardless of who owns them, the overall effect of these places can run the gamut between eye-frying…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…and downright melancholy.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Gallup, New Mexico, has a little of both. Known as the “capital” of Indian Country, the town of 20,000 or so is the gateway to many American Indian nations, home to nearly a quarter of a million Indigenous people. As a result, Gallup is chock-a-block with trading posts and pawn shops, where local Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and others pawn their jewelry and other handmade goods in exchange for cash, staples or dry goods—and the shop owners then sell the jewelry to tourists. Nearly all of these shops are run either by white or, increasingly, Middle-Eastern owners.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Gallup’s pawn shops have a controversial history, with some establishments accused of dealing in fake goods or cheating Indigenous makers out of a fair price for their work. So I did a little homework before we arrived, and chose Richardson’s as the place we’d visit. The shop has been in operation for over a hundred years, and though the Richardson family is white, they have a long reputation of being reputable dealers with a good relationship with the nations it represents. We marveled at the beauty on display there—some of the jewelry were incredible “old pawn” antique pieces.

Santa Fe sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Still, my favorite trading experience on our Route 66 trip was when we had the chance to buy goods directly from the makers. In Santa Fe we shopped at the famous market at the Palace of the Governors, where artisans representing all of the region’s Indigenous cultures sell handmade jewelry, pottery, textiles, etc. at fair-trade prices. Each artist has to apply to the Native American Vendors Program to be included in the market, and the museum at the Palace of the Governors monitors each vendor to make sure the goods are authentic and the prices fair to the makers. (And bonus for history nerds like me: it’s really something to know you’re standing in the oldest continually-occupied public building in the country while you’re at it.)

Santa Fe sketch by Chandler O'Leary

In the end, I could only afford a couple of small items, but I was happy to know I was paying what they were actually worth (I don’t haggle, especially not with fellow artists), and that the proceeds would go directly to the maker. And best of all, I got to hear the stories behind each piece, from the person who made it.

That seems like a fair trade to me.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Faux-tem poles

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

If you travel any length of Route 66, you can expect to see some fake teepees along the way. Totem poles, on the other hand, are a bit more of a surprise.

Well, I say totem poles, because they call them totem poles, but as you can probably guess by the fact that this sign sits in the middle of the Ozarks, this is the closest these things are going to get.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Oklahoma’s version is even less like a real totem pole, and more like a giant muppety decoupaged Coke bottle. (It’s not even technically on Route 66, but a few miles down a side road.) Still, this thing is an icon of the Mother Road, and I’m glad to see it being kept in fine fettle for the next traveler who meanders down the road.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Fill ‘er up

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Polly want a pit stop?

If you’re going to take a road trip, at some point you’re going to need to refuel. And nobody knows how to fill your tank like the folks on Route 66. Of course, since the route crosses a big swath of American oil country, you’ll know that the milk of the Mother Road is petroleum.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cuba, Missouri

The thing is, though, the designers and architects and advertisers and engineers responsible for putting gas stations all along the route got into the spirit of 66 in their own unique ways. Forget what you know about ugly garages lining Interstate exits—many of Route 66’s filling stations are downright works of art.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cuba, Missouri

And many of them look absolutely nothing like gas stations.

Interestingly, the Mother Road was built at a time when more and more Americans owned automobiles—all over the country there was an increasingly large demand for petrol. Filling stations moved into town centers and residential neighborhoods, and some oil companies wanted their fuel stops to blend in with the neighborhood architecture.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Since American architecture is highly regional in nature, many of these “camoflaged” filling stations took on the look of their local culture—Spanish-Mission-style canopies in California, limestone façades in the Ozarks, clapboard farmhouse lookalikes in the Plains, etc. And then, of course, architectural tastes changed over the years, so you’ll find examples from the Victorian era to midcentury pop-Googie, and everything in between. (Not to mention the tradition of kitschy filling stations shaped like random objects or weird ho-made roadside giants.) Finally, each oil company wanted to attract customers away from the others, so they relied on creating distinctive architectural styles as a form of branding. The result is a veritable encyclopedia of diverse and spectacular specimens—and Route 66 might just have the best collection of all.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Albuquerque, New Mexico

After a few hundred miles, we started getting really good at spotting the buildings that used to be filling stations (this is an obvious one, but many had been deeply camoflaged, or totally remade in some other image, or else fallen into ruin). And we also developed a knack for pegging which style belonged to which company (above is a classic 1930s Texaco design).

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Then again, sometimes a building would throw us completely—the sealed-up garage bays hint at the Blue Dome’s history, but if I didn’t know better, I would have guessed this was once a Greek Orthodox church or something.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Spencer, Missouri

The filling stations of Route 66 also serve as markers of time’s passage, and the rise and fall of communities along the way. This one is all that remains of a ghost town in Missouri that fell into disuse when the highway changed its route. (I’m not talking about the advent of the Interstate, either, although that’s a common story—this place lost its prime spot decades before that, when the 66 alignment was simply moved to a spot further south.)

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Ranco Cucamonga, California

While many petroleum relics have faded into oblivion, others are being brought back, at least in some form or other. Above is one of the oldest specimens we found (it actually predates the birth of Route 66 by nearly a decade). While part of the structure has been torn down, at least the main part of the station is getting a lovely facelift.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Needles, California

It’s not just the oldest samples being preserved, either. This guy is only a little over fifty years old, but it, too, has been returned to its former glory.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Normal, Illinois

For many old stations, however, the opposite is true. Countless specimens either sit empty, their original purpose unknown to the average passerby—or else they get cannibalized and transformed into some other creature, usually without any fanfare.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Hydro, Oklahoma

These stories of disrepair and restoration interest me greatly, of course, but what really gets me is the story of each place: the whys and wherefores of each station, and the tastes and quirks of the people who either built or ran them.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Cool Springs, Arizona

After all, Route 66 crosses through some seriously unpopulated territory. Many of these old filling stations were the only game in town—or in the most remote corners, something closer to the last chance for salvation.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Commerce, Oklahoma

While others, meanwhile, live on in notoriety, attracting tourists to the spots where blood was shed or infamous characters once stood.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Odell, Illinois

Still, most tell the story of perfectly ordinary people running perfectly ordinary businesses along one of the backbones of American travel and commerce. They might be extraordinary today, but usually that’s boils down to having somehow lasted long enough to stand out amongst more modern surroundings.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Shamrock, Texas

I’m glad, at least, that I’m obviously not the only one who has noticed these things—that there is an army of conservators and historians and artists and boosters out there, preserving as many of these old filling stations as possible, and documenting the ones that can’t be saved.

I know that these days, oil companies have fallen out of public favor (heaven knows I have my own beef with the oil industry)—regardless of their nostalgia, these places are also reminders of American excess and the damaging effects of fossil fuels. Yet however we may be careening toward Peak Oil, these relics still have a place on the Mother Road—the path that might just traverse this country’s Peak History.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Neon echoes

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Compared to some of the other outrageous neon specimens along Route 66, this one seems downright pedestrian. Still, there’s a kind of midcentury perfection to this one, from the gorgeous script lettering to the jaunty lightning bolt through “TV.” And there’s something familiar about the shape of the sign, as well, as if one had seen it before…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Ah, right. One has. This brighter, showier version is just fifty miles away in Lebanon, MO—it was built (by the same neon company, no less) in tribute to the Rest Haven sign, which the owner of the Munger Moss had admired when it was erected just a year or so before, in 1953. And both signs are a clear homage to one of the most famous neon sign designs in America: the one known simply as the “Great Sign,” which began marking Holiday Inns around the U.S. in ’52.

I’m guessing there wasn’t a whole lot of respect for intellectual property among sign scribes of the time, because this sort of design pilfering was pretty common—but I find I just can’t get too riled up about this case. For one thing, that basic Great Sign look appeared in knock-offs all over the country—clearly people thought if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For another, I confess I felt a little thrill when I got to see that little TV lightning bolt again: it was like a moment of Deja Googie.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The proof is in the pavement

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

It’s easy to take for granted the fact that the American West is crisscrossed with highways nowadays, but those highways didn’t get there by chance. If you look closely at the routes those highways take, you can give yourself an excellent crash course in history, both human and natural. Overland exploration, trade routes, desert basins, animal migration, continental drift…all these things and more are hinted at by the map sketched out by the U.S. highway system.

Let me explain what I mean. If you happened to grow up in the Midwest, chances are your mental map would be dictated by a grid that follows the cardinal directions. In the Great Plains, particularly, where the landscape is mostly flat, dividing property lines and town borders into a standard grid makes the most sense. Much of the United States west of the Appalachians is arranged this way, in fact, in a basic grid called the Range and Township system. The system overlays a simple framework of one-square-mile sections over the entire western two-thirds of the country, dividing the landscape into rangeland for farming and six-mile by six-mile townships. Interestingly enough, we have Thomas Jefferson to thank for this system, which he devised in 1785 as a way to manage the vast swaths of land that, after the Revolution (and some years later the Louisiana Purchase), now belonged to the U.S. His reasoning, I think, was both practical and lofty: as a farmer himself, he was looking for a workable alternative to the inherited system of Metes and Bounds, England’s age-old framework for managing farmland and water access. While that system worked for the colonies, each roughly comparable in size and topography to what they knew in the Old World, the old framework wasn’t scalable to the size of the new West—particularly when tracts of land were being sold off sight-unseen to settlers and prospectors. But beyond the practical logic, I think Jefferson had more philosophical motives behind his plan. This is the guy who designed Monticello, after all, a monument to neoclassical thinking and an homage to ancient Greece and Rome. The Range and Township system applied a sense of order—however illusory—to the uncharted wilds of the West. It brought rational thought and a sense of opportunity to an area associated with chaos and the fear of the unknown.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

If you’ve ever visited the Great Plains, you can still see Thomas Jefferson’s plan in evidence, from the straight-as-an-arrow farm roads in rural areas, to the faithful system of thoroughfares in cities like Tulsa or Dallas, where the roads always travel from A to B in a straight line, with traffic lights appearing like clockwork at precise one-mile increments, and tenth-of-a-mile residential blocks in between.

But here’s the problem: Thomas Jefferson never laid eyes on the West he gridded out like a piece of paper. He never saw nature’s rebuttal to rationality in the Rockies or the Colorado Plateau. It’s all well and good to have a sensible grid in a flat place, without major physical features to interrupt the plan. But in many parts of the West, Jefferson’s tidy squares becomes utterly useless. You can’t easily farm a quadrangle of land that’s bisected by a canyon, and you can’t run a road up and over a mountain. Travel in a straight line is impossible in many, many places. As everyone from Chief Joseph to Lewis and Clark to highway engineers could tell you, there are some places in the West where only one route overland is possible—or none at all.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So if you look at a modern highway map of the western half of the United States, the limitations geography places on rationality are obvious. You can see precisely where the Corps of Discovery found their way to the Pacific Northwest, or where the stagecoaches hauled goods to Santa Fe, or how the Mormon pioneers tumbled out of the mountains to the Great Salt Lake, or the supply route linking the California Missions to Mexico. It’s all there, because centuries later we’re still traveling the exact same routes that humans always have, dodging mountains and following water to whatever their destinations were. The Conestoga wagons followed the game trails and trade routes of the various Indigenous peoples. The railroad followed the pioneers’ wagon tracks. The first pavement slabs paralleled the railroad grade, and modern Interstate freeways zoom right over many of those original roadbeds and trailways. Even the technology of conveyance was based on the older methods of travel—just look at the wheel base on a modern car, whose width matches that of railroad cars, themselves directly descended from the lineage of horse-drawn wagon measurements.

As you can probably guess by my long-winded introduction here, this stuff ties square in with Route 66 and the path it cuts to the Pacific.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

There are many places along Route 66 where you can see this progression of transportation history unfold before your very eyes. In flat places like central Illinois or eastern Oklahoma, there was no reason to reuse the same roadbed over and over again—they had all the land in the world at their disposal, and nothing to impede their path. So they simply built the new road alongside the old—over and over again.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The result is a network of parallel lines, each wider than the last, each laid down at a different point in recent history. In these places, the land acts like a palimpsest, marked over and over again with new traceries of roadbeds, while the old ones, though crumbling in disrepair, still remain visible.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Since Route 66 was decommissioned as an official national highway, there are places where it’s difficult to discern the original route. The old roadbed might be there, but the Mother Road can get lost amid a modern tangle of frontage roads, diversions, and replaced pavement.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Part of the joy of traveling Route 66 is learning to recognize the old road. In some places, the path is lit up like a beacon with painted pavement and restored waymarking…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…in others, tracing the original marks on the palimpsest becomes something of a quest.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And then there are the places where the original pavement itself becomes the attraction along the way—like this gorgeous stretch of brick roadway in Illinois, paid for in the 1930s by a brick magnate and lovingly maintained as a curious relic of the past.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

My favorite of all was the long section of 66 that traverses central Oklahoma: the combination of good craftsmanship and a remote locale has preserved the original roadbed impeccably. It sounds nerdy to say it out loud, but I dare any 66 enthusiast not to feel a thrill when seeing that curbed Portland cement.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

By the end of our journey, we’d gotten really good at spotting the difference between old and new along the way. And whenever we lost the thread of the route (easily done, since there are so many alignments, many of which have been replaced or buried under modern roads), it became easier and easier to spot the hints that would lead us back to the Mother Road.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

What led me to travel Route 66 was a love of history and Americana, and a desire to travel a well-worn and well-loved path. I had no idea that it would be so much more—and something much closer to the feeling of solving a mystery. Beyond the fun of diners and neon, there’s a richer, subtler 66 to be discovered, if you’re willing to look a little deeper. All the clues are there—some of them stamped right into the pavement underfoot.

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Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Farm to marketing

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

One of the most well-known—and most-hyped—tourist traps along Route 66 are the Meramec Caverns. Whether or not the caves actually live up to the hype is not something I can weigh in on, I’m afraid: by the time we got there, they’d closed for the evening. But that’s okay—while I’m always up for a good tourist trap (neon signs inside the caves!), and I’d love to see the place that was allegedly the hideout of Jesse James, what really interests me most is the hype itself. And on our trip I didn’t have to worry about missing out on that.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

When it comes to advertising, Meramec Caverns seems to have taken a leaf from the playbook of Wall Drug, which opened just two years before the Caverns transitioned from local curiosity to tourist entertainment complex. Wall Drug had enormous success with advertising to travelers by way of hundreds of inexpensive, hand-painted wooden billboards placed in farm fields all over the northern Plains. Les Dill, the owner of the Caverns, offered farmers in 14 states a free paint job on their barns—as long as they were willing for the design to include a giant Meramec Caverns ad on whatever wall or roof panel faced the road. By the 1960s there were hundreds of Meramec barns in 40 different states, all beckoning travelers to the Ozarks.

Oh, and you might also be interested to know that Dill was also one of the earliest adopters of the humble bumper sticker, cottoning onto the idea of cars as mobile billboards. Now, I still don’t think there’s a more elegant bumper sticker than “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” but Meramec Caverns had the idea first.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

There are still a handful of Meramec barns around today, and some of the best (and most lovingly maintained) are along the Mother Road. They vary in design, and some—like the one above—look a bit like some sort of cryptic code for those in the know.

Well, thanks to Dill’s ingenious marketing strategy, I am in the know now—and you can bet I’ll return one day, following the signs back to the Caverns, barn by barn.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Ted’s tasty freeze

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Our first day on Route 66 was bookended with pit stops at iconic Mother Road road-food joints. We had our early-morning breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s just after sunrise, but by the time we reached St. Louis in the late afternoon, it was so hot and muggy that we were dying for a break to cool off. Enter Ted Drewes, to the rescue.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Ted’s recipe for frozen custard has been an icon since 1926, and the location on Chippewa Street has been a Route 66 fixture since it opened in 1941. There were plenty of treats to choose from, but we went with their classic mainstay, the Concrete. To anyone who has visited a Dairy Queen in the last thirty years, a Concrete will look just like ye olde familiar Blizzard. The Blizzard, too, was invented in St. Louis—but Dairy Queen will be the first to admit that the inspiration was Ted Drewes’s concoction, which predated the Blizzard by nearly thirty years.

I went with the fairly standard cookie dough flavor for mine, but the Tailor just about died of happiness when he saw they offered one made with pie cherries (his favorite, and an increasingly rare commodity—that’s a story for another day). We still had another eighty miles of road ahead of us that day, but we were refreshed and ready: nothing prepares you for pounding the pavement like a little scoop of Concrete.