Springfield’s claim to fame as Birthplace of Route 66 marks 95th birthday on Friday

Published: Apr. 30, 2021 at 8:57 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - A small crowd gathered at the corner of Jefferson and St. Louis streets Friday afternoon in downtown Springfield to commemorate the exact moment 95 years earlier when the city laid claim to the title as “The Birthplace of Route 66″.

It was at that exact moment, 4 o’clock, that a telegram was sent by a group of men at the old Colonial Hotel at Jefferson and St. Louis to the man in charge of the federal Bureau of Roads, Thomas McDonald, which was then a part of the Department of Agriculture.

The Colonial Hotel is long gone, torn down in 1997.

But a plaque recognizing the hotel’s role in creating Route 66 still stands at that corner next to the parking lot that replaced it.

And the importance of that simple telegram lives on to this very day.

”What we’re celebrating today is the 95th anniversary of a telegram,” said John Sellars, the Executive Director of the History Museum on the Square, in explaining the reason behind the gathering.

In the mid-1920′s a group of federal planners had been working on the country’s interstate highway system and had decided that all north-south highways would end with odd-numbers while east-west routes would end in even numbers. The committee also recommended that all the major transcontinental highways would end in zeroes.

In September, 1925 they proposed a “Route 60″ from Chicago to Los Angeles only to have the governor of Kentucky protest that because the highway was not truly transcontinental, it should not get the “zero” designation and that he wanted a “zero” highway in his state. So in early 1926 he got his wish when a highway from Virginia through Kentucky ending in Springfield was renamed “Route 60″ and the Chicago to Los Angeles road was changed to “Route 62″.

That didn’t sit well with those along the old “Route 60″ and led by Springfield businessman John T. Woodruff and Oklahoma Highway Chairman Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, the group met in Springfield on April 30, 1926 to come up with an alternative.

And it was just by happenstance that the group ended up gathering in Springfield.

“There was a Rotary convention in Springfield that year, the only time it ever happened here,” Sellars explained. “So Cyrus Avery and some of the people involved in the highway were avid Rotarians and they came here for that Rotary convention, got with John Woodruff at the Colonial, and the rest as they say is history.”

At 4 p.m. that day the group sent that now famous telegram to Washington D.C. that said, “Regarding Chicago-Los Angeles Road...if California, Arizona, New Mexico and Illinois will accept Sixty-Six instead of Sixty we are inclined to agree to this change. We prefer Sixty-Six to Sixty-Two.”

So why did they choose “66″?

“They thought it was catchy,” Sellars answered. “They had been offered the number 62 and they thought that sounded like they were second best or the number two highway.”

It wasn’t until November that the national network of highways had its numbers officially ratified and the group that met in Springfield had its wish come true with the designation of former “Route 60″ as “Route 66″.

“Yeah, some of the folks in Missouri jumped the gun a little bit and printed up a bunch of road maps that had Route 66 as Highway 60 and those are now collector’s items,” said Tom Peters, the Dean of Library Services at Missouri St. University who organized the 95th birthday celebration.

And had that Rotary convention not taken place in Springfield that year?

“It probably still would have happened,” Peters said of the renaming of the highway. “Just not in Springfield. They all just happened to be here on that particular day. But actually a lot of people from the Ozarks were deeply involved in developing Route 66 from the early trails all the way up to the concept of a road from Chicago to L.A. to all the work that was done to ascertain the number. And then the first U.S. 66 Highway Association was incorporated in Greene County and John T. Woodruff was the first president of that association so it really started right here with that telegram 95 years-ago.”

“It wasn’t even completely paved until 1938 so the first 12 years was some pavement, some gravel and some dirt just out through the farm tracks,” added Sellars of Route 66′s humble beginnings.

But that number the group though was “catchy” would surpass even their wildest dreams as Route 66 lives on as an important part of our nation’s history, referred to as the “Mother Road” and “Main Street of America”. As one of the original roads in our country’s highway system it has sparked songs (Get Your Kicks on Route 66), TV shows (Route 66 about two men seeking adventure along the road), innovations (did you know the first drive-up window was at Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield?) and an entire culture of worshipful travelers and nostalgia with visitors coming from all over the world to take in its sights even though interstates now provide faster travel.

“It’s much more homogeneous now when you ride on an interstate and you see the same restaurants and hotels,” Sellars said. “You see the same everything. But in the old days on Route 66 every city was different. And just that sense of freedom, taking off on the road and going from place to place.”

Many towns along Route 66 have celebrations of the Mother Road every year including Springfield, which will have its Birthplace of Route 66 Festival August 13-14 after it was cancelled last year because of the pandemic.

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