Presented as what it calls a “birthday present” to the Mother Road, the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership has published a new “more accurate history” of Route 66 in conjunction with the Research Encyclopedia on American History from the Oxford University Press.
The Route 66 centennial celebration is scheduled for 2026.
Established in 2015 with support from the National Park Service and the World Monuments’ Fund, The Road Ahead Partnership set a mission of sustaining and revitalizing Route 66 as a national and global icon.
Primary authors of The History of Route 66, the Mother Road’s new biography are David Dunaway and Stephen Mandrogoc of the University of New Mexico.
“The world has long needed an accurate history of Route 66,” Dunaway is quoted in a news release. “Many books tell the story but not always with accuracy.”
“Their analysis will not match other histories of Route 66,” the news release points out, “for their intent was to move beyond stereotypes to tell the stories of groups often left out of the road’s history.
“The work spans the changing eras of America’s mother road, including the origins and early uses of Route 66. Also addressed is the role of the historic freeway during the Depression and the Postwar Era, which led to its popularity as a family vacation destination in the middle of the 20th century. The article documents the decommissioning of the legendary highway and its recent revival, and includes a discussion of Route 66 literature and an overview of primary sources.”
Route 66, the authors note, became among the most culturally influential roads in the country, partly because many of the communities through which it traveled “had never been connected by a highway to the wider nation.”
Ironically, just the opposite happened with the introduction of the Interstate highway system which, as we were reminded by the animated movie Cars, bypassed many of those smaller communities the Mother Road had knit together.
The authors quote Angel Delgadillo, famed Seligman, Arizona, barber who led the revival of the route more than a decade after it was decommissioned: “September 22, 1978 between 1 and 2 o’clock,” he said. “Every 24 hours nine thousand automobiles passed through town. And suddenly, you could lay on the street and nobody would run over you because there wasn’t any traffic.”
“Route 66 was a road that introduced diversity in American culture by bringing people and their cultures together,” they write, adding the road “represented the ideals of America — the freedom of the open road, to choose one’s own path, to see something new and interesting.
“Even after decommissioning, it remains a powerful cultural symbol.”
But the authors note that not all of those symbols are positive. For example, in 1930, 44 of the 89 counties through which Route 66 passed were “sundown” communities, “where African Americans were banned from being in the city limits after nightfall.”
Not only African Americans, but Native Americans, people of Hispanic descent and Asian Americans also would meet discrimination as they traveled the route.
While Route 66 was used primarily in its early years for trucking goods to the West Coast and for westward migration, and during World War II as a main military transport route, it wasn’t until after the war that it became a tourist destination cherished by Americans and foreign visitors alike.
“Almost immediately,” the authors note, “Route 66 entered American popular culture and imagination. Tourists wanted ‘that California trip’ sung about in Bobby Troup’s well-known 1946 song…”
Get your kicks, indeed, but also read the rest of the route’s story in this new 39-page (at least that’s what it is on my iPad) biography of the Mother Road.