There is more to Route 66 than nostalgia. Many — if not most — who traveled the road were everyday people, driving buses and trucks, thumbing a ride, and using it to go to work and the grocery store.
There is more to Route 66 than nostalgia. While strong, the attraction of perceived simpler times of big-fin cars, family vacations, and roadside fun is only a tiny part of the story. Many — if not most — who traveled the road didn’t do it for a vacation.
There were everyday people, driving buses and trucks, thumbing a ride, and using it to go to work and the grocery store.
While some travelers were actively embraced, others were denied or afforded less-than-equal service because of their skin color.
This was particularly true of Black motorists during the Jim Crow period. By necessity, they had to rely on their own travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book, for places that were safe for African Americans.
While often owners of Route 66 businesses in the Southwest, Hispanics and Latinos suffered discrimination on other stretches of the road.
American Indians both benefitted and were negatively impacted by Route 66. Much of the highway’s imagery and allure was based on stereotypes of American Indians — wigwam motels, tepee curio shops, and roadside totem poles. The highway itself cut across numerous tribal lands, disrupting communities and traditions. Yet, the same disruption connected American Indians to the larger world and created new economic opportunities.
More recently, Indian Americans (Americans with ancestry from India) have invested in much of the route — nationally they own about half the motels along U.S. highways. Through family ownership, management, and self-sufficiency, they maintain dozens of the Mother Road’s iconic and everyday motels.
All of their stories need to be told.
They need to be told to tell the fuller history of Route 66. This not only corrects and enlivens its history but also reflects current America, which is increasingly socio-economically, racially, ethnically, and generationally diverse.
These are the current and future conservators of Route 66.
There sure was. Some along the highway benefitted the road; others were pushed out, or even excluded from even traveling it without fear. Jim Crow era discrimination was prevalent along Route 66 – and every highway. But it was not only directed at people of color. Families fleeing the Dust Bowl were sometimes quickly whisked out of town or turned away at a state border. There are as many stories as there are travelers on the highway.
For many of us, when we think about Route 66, we see the out-of-state motorists (maybe Tod and Buzz) cruising into a neon-lit town in their big, chrome cars. But who used Route 66 on a daily basis? Look around your town, at the old buildings and businesses. Imagine — or better yet, research — the people who made their livelihoods along the road. The truckers, the bus drivers, the service people, who made the road what it is. Are their stories well-known and well-told? Reach out to an older business. Tell them you are interested in learning about their history on Route 66.
Download the worksheet and work at asnwering the questions listed there. They will help you set up the next steps in getting your property restored.
Consider this with regard to the people that lived and worked there in the past?
(Are there Armenian restaurants? Tribal communities? Black merchants? Businesses owned by women?)
Have some communities started to adaptively reuse Route 66 resources?
Who can you talk to who hasn’t had the chance to tell their story yet? Are there communities who should be more involved with preserving Route 66 who haven’t been invited to do that yet?
Finding the larger story sometimes just starts with just being curious — asking questions, sometimes ones that are uncomfortable. You may find stories by reading old newspapers or having conversations with your neighbors, that give you a better understanding of all the people who used the Mother Road.
Sometimes it’s helpful to see things on a map. Cultural asset mapping identifies cultural, heritage, and historical sites in an area and connects them together. The mapping can be done informally, on a large or small scale. It can consist of simply a handmade map across a long piece of newsprint or a sophisticated, multilayer online presentation using GIS software. It can include images of places still around or that went away many years ago. Snippets of oral history, old advertisements, and the sounds of the site can animate the map. A cultural asset map brings awareness to your community’s unsung Route 66 history and intangible aspects that don’t make it into tourist guides.
Try to diversify the membership of your local Route 66 associations and make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate in preservation.
It didn’t appear in Route 66 guidebooks, old or new. To most, it was invisible — as if it didn’t have a history.
But there it was, on the side of the road, as it stood since the 1920s, brimming with a story needing to be told.
And only recently has this story come to light, enriching Route 66. Of course, those who lived it already knew its significance.
Erected in the early 20th century, the Threatt Service Station, as it was originally called, was the brainchild of Allen Threatt, a farmer, politician, and entrepreneur.
Threatt was born in Alabama in 1893, and he moved his family to Luther Township, Oklahoma, in 1920. Opened to settlement in 1889, Luther Township had a dominant Black population by the turn of the century. Threatt joined many other African Americans from Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas who sought to farm freely and build a community. At one time, it had its own high school and an African American-owned business district.
Threatt excelled in his new setting as a farmer and stone quarry operator, and served as Luther Township’s treasurer for a time. Then, spotting an opportunity, he and his son Ulysses erected a two-pump filling station along Route 66 near his farm.
Attractively faced with tan sandstone, it was a family business — and possibly represented the only Black-owned and operated gas station on Route 66. Children and grandchildren pumped gas, cleaned windshields, and checked tire pressure.
Threatt added a grocery in 1935, and two years later, Ulysses’ wife, Elizabeth, a full-time schoolteacher, opened a café in the station called the “The Junior.” In the late 1930s, it supported a Red Cross first aid station, giving medical assistance to drivers in a time when ambulances were widely not available.
It became a popular stop for locals and travelers. On weekends, Threatt would serve up wieners and hamburgers to people from Oklahoma City – and as far away as Tulsa – who came out to dance or watch a “Negro Baseball” game organized by Allen and his son.
But the station also had a critical role. While not listed in the Green Book, it was one of the few services in the area that worked as a refuge for African Americans traveling Route 66 during the Jim Crow period.
Allen Threatt Sr. died in 1950. The gas station carried on for another decade, but it shuttered like many along the route, eventually converting to housing. The pitched roof building sat dormant for many decades, attracting the attention of only a few Route 66 historians. Its history remained muted.
Its story began to emerge in the early 1990s when Elizabeth Threatt worked with graduate students from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Architecture to nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places. One of the participants recalled much later that preservationists “didn’t look at things then as we do now,” acknowledging the gap in African American history on Route 66.
Yet even with its national designation, the sandstone station didn’t make its way into guidebooks and mainly remained overlooked for more than a decade.
Starting in the 2000s, Threatt’s grandchildren began looking into restoring the station.
A National Park Service Route 66 grant helped pay for an architectural study of the building. The family hoped to use the study as a stepping stone to restore it and eventually create an interpretive center.
In 2021, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated it one of their 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. A month later, the same organization awarded the Threatt family $100,000 under its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to assist in the building’s restoration.
Formerly little known, it is now a significant site and an important conveyor of the Black experience of Route 66.
Yes, there were thousands of waitresses working on Route 66 – serving up meatloaf, pouring coffee, and dishing out wisecracks – but the role of women on the Mother Road was much more than that stereotype acknowledges.
We now know they ran their own businesses, worked as archaeologists, anthropologists, and cartographers, painted, and took photographs. Yet, our standard imagery of a woman in a waitress uniform serving up pie is stuck on repeat.
Documentary filmmaker Katrina Parks wanted to correct this gross simplification.
Having already produced “The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound (2013),” a film exploring how over 100,000 young women traveled to the west to work for the Fred Harvey Company, Parks naturally turned to Route 66 for her next subject.
Work on the new project involved conducting extensive oral histories along the road —sometimes at the places the women once worked. Parks recalls that these moments at the old workplace were “special to them,” sparking rich memories. For some, it would be the last time they would visit the site.
Partnering with Cinefemme (a nonprofit for women filmmakers), and the NPS Route 66 Route Corridor Preservation Program, Parks curated the interviews and research on The Women on the Mother Road website. Organized by state and theme, the website allows viewers to explore the lives of more than 75 women and watch snippets of interviews.
The site celebrates women’s achievements along the road, and explores the discrimination they faced. Among the women profiled are Isabella Selmes Greenway, a Williams area rancher who became Arizona’s first congresswoman and worked to improve Highway 66, and Lucia Rodriguez, founder of the popular Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, California. Dr. Spencer SooHoo tells the story of his mother, Linda, who immigrated from China and eventually ran Freddy’s Drive in where she was famous for her tacos.
Parks is turning her project into a three-part documentary film series. Entitled “Route 66 Women: The Untold Story of the Mother Road” (2022), the series showcases diverse women’s experiences along Route 66. As described by Cinefemme, it works to highlight the “extraordinary lives and achievements of women who overcame gender discrimination and segregation to build fulfilling lives for themselves and generations to come on America’s most iconic highway.”
The website will live on. Parks says it will continue to evolve, eventually with the potential of becoming an educational tool.
In 2019, the Tulsa Route 66 Commission erected the “The Green Book” marker near a former business, Mince’s Service Station, featured in the African American travel guide of the same name. The marker speaks frankly about racial discrimination along Route 66 and Tulsa as a historically segregated community. But it also celebrates the creative guide created by postal worker Victor H. Green to “help African American travelers find welcoming businesses on the road away from home.” While many Green Book buildings have vanished, there is still an opportunity to document them. Whether through a local or state program, historical markers are an excellent way to bring much-needed attention to these sites.
When faced with mitigating the removal of a small Route 66 bridge, the New Mexico Department of Transportation did something creative. Traditionally, before a National Register-eligible structure was destroyed, it might be recorded with a report documenting its history engineering features. This time, the transportation department tasked an Albuquerque engineering firm to prepare an ethnographic study of the American Indian experience of Route 66 in New Mexico. Designed by Parametrix, “Route 66 & Native Americans” looks deeply into how the highway affected tribes in New Mexico. Tribal governments and individuals contributed to the study, lending their voice and perspective. The 77-page report did much more for the highway’s full history than an engineering document could. There are likely many opportunities such as this along Route 66 for telling the bigger story.
While thousands of travelers hit Route 66 every year looking for adventure, most, as claimed by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, “miss out on one of the best-kept secrets of this driving experience — the American Indian destinations along the route.” To correct this, AIANTA created a tour guide highlighting these best-kept secrets. But this guide, called “American Indian Experiences Along Route 66,” does much more. Route 66 wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of tribal nations, which historically provided an easement for the highway to cross their land. The modern traveler still enjoys this privilege today.
And these lands are significant. Consider that 1,372 miles — almost a third of the route, representing 39 distinct nations — are located on tribal lands. The AIANTA guide champions a deeper experience. Instead of speeding by the signs depicting stereotypes, it directs travelers to experience tribal history and culture, and to explore American Indian business and cultural institutions.
Educate yourself on the relationship between the tribes and Route 66. The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association’s Route 66 website is a great place to start. Reexamine the stereotypes you see the next time you travel.
Today’s preservation movement recognizes the need to be more inclusive — that is, to have everyone’s story recognized and respected. That includes Route 66. Every town along the route is layered with history, and some of it has never been told. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has committed to this critical work. Through leadership and financial incentives, the trust is directing new attention to diversity. Their website contains many tools for to make your project more inclusive.