Locals soon will have a new place to get their kicks on Route 66.
Kirk Wheeler, owner of Wheeler Work Trucks and Mother Road Motorcycles, is planning a fall launch of his Birthplace of Route 66 Food Truck Park and Diner on St. Louis Street adjacent to his shops.
The venture is part of a resurgence of the Mother Road in the Ozarks, where Springfield is dubbed the birthplace of the famous roadway.
“The segment of Route 66, that corridor between Glenstone and National, has just kind of been overlooked,” Wheeler said. “I wanted to put something in there that would pay tribute to the history, to give the neighborhood something other than a used car lot. And I’m in the used truck business.”
A self-professed “car and Route 66 nut,” Wheeler is making his own journey across the Main Street of America, spanning eight states from its start in Chicago to its conclusion 2,400 miles later in Santa Monica, California. He’s taking the trip with friend Terry Bradley in a refurbished 1966 red Chevy pickup nicknamed Ol’ Red.
“I’ve had that truck for 10 years. I don’t think I’ve driven it 200 miles, and then we put 1,200 on it in a week,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got it dusted off pretty good.”
They completed the first part of the journey in January and will head west in June. It’s serving as an opportunity to gather inspiration for the food truck park.
“It’s been on my bucket list for years,” Wheeler added. “There’s so much stuff on the old highway and the history of these old towns that got bypassed when we put in the interstate systems.”
Back in Springfield at 1530 St. Louis St., the food truck park will feature 10 mobile eateries and an 1,800-square-foot diner to provide patrons indoor seating and a bar. He expects to spend $200,000-$300,000, including renovations of a vacant building.
Wheeler said five food trucks are signed on: London Calling Pasty Co., The Wheelhouse LLC, Holy Cow Food Truck, Davalon and an unnamed, new concept. He has five others in consideration.
Wheeler said the last remaining regular tenants of the SGF Mobile Food Park, at Glenstone Avenue and Chestnut Expressway, are planning a move to the Route 66 food truck park. Melissa Smallwood, co-owner of The Wheelhouse, is bringing back the food truck portion of the eatery after an August 2018 move to the Vib Hotel.
“The problem with the first food truck park was the horrible parking and lack of space,” Smallwood said. “Having an indoor space I think will be a game changer.”
The Route 66 diner will be decorated with memorabilia, complete with a gift shop for tourists. Bright red, white and blue neon signage will be reminiscent of the route’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s.
Wheeler said he had planned a summer opening to coincide with the ninth annual Birthplace of Route 66 Festival scheduled Aug. 9-10, but permit delays pushed the opening back to September or October.
Telling the story
Although it was dropped as a federal highway in 1985, historians say Route 66 never lost its allure.
“It’s definitely experienced a resurgence in recent years,” said Kaitlyn McConnell, the founder of history website Ozarks Alive. “People love Route 66 because they love stories. You drive along, and you find a bunch of cool stuff you wouldn’t find anywhere else.”
A 2012 study from Rutgers University calculated $262 million in annual benefits from direct spending, wealth creation and public tax revenues associated with Route 66. For many small towns along the route, the study says, “the Mother Road is one of the most significant, if not the only, ‘economic game in town.’”
The route had its official beginnings in 1926, allowing people to seamlessly drive across two-thirds of the country for the first time. Springfield claimed its title as the Birthplace of Route 66 because a telegram requesting the highway be named “Sixty Six” was sent to Washington, D.C., from the Colonial Hotel downtown and signed by Oklahoma Department of Highways Chairman Cyrus Avery and Missouri State Highway Commission Chief Engineer A.H. Piepmeier.
The name was contested, as McConnell said Avery and others wanted the number 60 for the route, instead of its designation as 62. When catchy 66 was discovered to be available, the route planners seized the opportunity.
John Sellars, executive director of the History Museum on the Square, said Springfieldians remained heavily involved in the famous road. Local attorney John Woodruff was named the first president of the U.S. Highway 66 Association, founded in 1927 to promote the highway. Sellars said the entire route was paved by 1938.
The heyday began after World War II, when rationing was lifted and Americans had excess funds to spend on leisure travel.
“It was busy traffic, steady all the time,” Sellars said. “Many businesses were popping up that worked to take care of travelers. Their livelihood was catering to these travelers.”
In Springfield, gas stations, motor courts, restaurants, unique shops and attractions opened for business. Some of the most well-known Route 66 establishments are the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven and the Gillioz Theatre, which are still in operation today, Red’s Giant Hamburg, which is returning after 35 years in July, and Jewell Theatre, where “Ozark Jubilee” was filmed.
“It was a great way for small businesses to pop up. Today, there’s a gas station on every corner; back then it wasn’t there,” McConnell said. “That was a new phase of American life and it offered a lot of employment.”
The route through Springfield shifted over time, she said, as it once went straight through Park Central Square. Today, parts of the route are on Kearney Street, Glenstone Avenue, St. Louis Street and College Street.
On the square, the History Museum is planning a grand opening this summer of its new space. Sellars said the nonprofit has operated a temporary museum the last year in nearby Fox Theatre.
“We’ve had visitors from 30 foreign countries and 34 states of the union,” he said. “We still have visitors every day.”
He said travelers from England, New Zealand and Australia are common. On the same day, an English couple celebrating their 30th anniversary and an English couple on their honeymoon came into the museum.
Once the planned $12 million renovation project for the museum is complete, Sellars said patrons will experience a 66-foot-long curved wall that on one side features a timeline of Route 66 and on the other side maps the Mother Road. There also are replica neon signs of iconic Route 66 businesses, as well as an interactive touch screen taking users on a trip along the route, Sellars said. There’s also a video documenting “Woodruff’s dream” for the road.
In 2011, a public-private partnership established the Route 66 Festival.
“What started out as more or less just a block party … quickly has exploded to be one of the nation’s top Route 66 festivals,” said Rusty Worley, president of the Downtown Springfield Association.
He said about 100 cars and 2,000 attendees were on hand the first year. Last year, the numbers were over 600 classic automobiles and a record 53,000 attendees.
“People are coming from over 10 states,” he said. “We even had someone from Australia.
“This festival has helped broaden the community’s knowledge of their role [in Route 66] and their pride that they have. That’s been one of the most encouraging outcomes of this festival.”
McConnell said the international draw for what she called the “magic highway” can be a big tourist draw, especially for smaller communities.
“People have realized this in recent years, if they didn’t before, that this is a big money maker,” she said. “To them, that’s the thing they have to see in the U.S. It’s like our Eiffel Tower.”
Wheeler said that rang true of the first part of his trip from Chicago to Springfield. He said in many of the small towns he passed through, the economic impact was clear.
“You couldn’t go very far without coming across something that was themed with Route 66,” Wheeler said, adding his planned food truck park is his way to give back to the Mother Road.
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