The People's Highway: Route 66
Life on the Open Road
In the 1920s and 1930s, new highways began to affect people’s lives. Some Americans used highways to migrate. Others earned a living on the road, or by its side, running businesses. Many Americans began to take to the highways for pleasure. Travelers often saw the highway as a symbol of independence and freedom, even though they depended on government for the roads they drove on, and on businesses such as automobile and tire manufacturers, oil refiners, gas stations, and roadside restaurants for support.
Route 66 was commissioned in 1926 and fully paved by the late 1930s. It ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, creating connections between hundreds of small towns and providing a trucking route through the Southwest. While not the first long-distance highway, or the most traveled, Route 66 gained fame beyond almost any other road. Dubbed the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 carried hundreds of thousands of Depression-era migrants from the Midwest who went to California hoping for jobs and a better life.
Cyrus Avery: “The most direct road to the Pacific coast”
Like the pioneer days, when they outfitted at St. Louis for all points in the West and Southwest, so today people traveling by auto … find themselves coming to St. Louis over the various U.S. roads, and when arriving in St. Louis, by consulting their map, find U.S. 66 is the most direct road to the Pacific coast and likewise to all points in the great Southwest. “I challenge anyone to show a road of equal length that traverses more scenery, more agricultural wealth, and more mineral wealth than does U.S. 66.”Cyrus Avery
U.S. 66 route marker, 1930sGift of State of Oklahoma, Department of Transportation
“After Carl got a truck to earn more money, I was alone here to run this place. During this time, people from Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and eastern Oklahoma were traveling the road to the West Coast to find jobs. . . . Many times I would have people stop that were completely broke, and I would feed them and give them gas in exchange for some appliance or other articles of value they might have. Sometimes I would just buy their old broke-down cars, and then they would catch the bus and head on west looking for work.” -Lucille Hamons
Sign from Hamons Court on Route 66, Provine, Oklahoma, 1941Gift of Cheryl Hamons Nowka, Carlisle L. Hamons, Carla M. Hamons Wyatt, and Delpha D. Martin
Mama and Daddy were making it on a 40-acre farm they had leased.... [After the fire] it was all gone. The barn, the wagon, the plows, the cows, the horses, and Daddy’s prized Model A Ford. He set out to town on foot to get himself another car.... He came back home with a ’26 Chevy and a little homemade trailer bumping along behind. They gave up the lease on the 40 acres, loaded what belongings they had in the trailer, and headed west toward California.” -Merle Haggard,Sing Me Back Home: My Story (1981)
We got to Bakersfield the following Friday. We found a lot with a Santa Fe refrigerator car on it. The owner gave us nine months free rent if we would cut windows and doors in it, and do the plumbing to make a livable place of it. We took advantage of the offer and … added little improvements until it was a cozy little home.” -Flossie Haggard
“Our rest stops were lots of fun”
We made plans to drive from Rochester, New York, to Hermosa Beach, California.…Mary Jane drove her car, I drove mine. Somewhere in Missouri we … crossed some railroad tracks, and my two front tires blew. We had to spend an extra day for repairs.…On the road again, we became aware of a car with four young men doing the same as we. Our rest stops were lots of fun with some boys to talk with. Getting close to Albuquerque, we noticed the reddest soil all around. As we went through Flagstaff the next day, we were treated to a magnificent morning sky.…Thanksgiving Day 1947: the boys headed off to their intended destination, and we girls were welcomed with open arms at my parents’ house in Hermosa Beach.” —Caroline Millbank Short
Bobby and Cynthia Troup: “Get your kicks on Route 66”
In 1946 Bobby Troup, an aspiring songwriter and music arranger, drove from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to advance his career. During the long trip, his wife, Cynthia, suggested that he write a song about highways, and she thought of the rhyme “Get your kicks on Route 66.” Bobby wrote the rest of the words and music as they traveled the famous highway. In Los Angeles he performed the song for Nat King Cole, who made it a hit. The Troups’ song became a monument to long-distance car travel.
The Delgadillo family: “Playing with bands up and down Route 66”
“During the Great Depression, times became tough and my dad’s business was very poor, and we were just about ready to join the Grapes of Wrath people. Our house was boarded up, and my dad and brothers got our Model T Ford ready, they built a trailer to haul all our things. I was just a little bitty guy, and I was real scared about what was going to happen to us. Then my brothers Juan and Joe got jobs playing with bands and traveling up and down Route 66, and we didn’t have to leave after all.”—Angel Delgadillo Jr.