Traffic keeps on trucking on Route 66
New Life on Historic Route 66 in Missouri
By Tom Uhlenbrock
Jefferson City, Mo. — New owners of two vintage motels on Route 66 in Missouri are doing their best to see traffic keeps on trucking on the legendary highway.
The Wagon Wheel Motel, in Cuba, is in tip-top shape after a complete renovation under Connie Echols, who bought the rundown motel in 2009 and has lovingly restored each of the stone cottages.
“It was horrible,” Echols said of the motel, which was built in 1935 and is the oldest continuously operating tourist court on the historic highway. “It had the original wiring and plumbing.”
On the far western side of the state, the Boots Motel, in Carthage, opened (last spring) the completed wing of a restoration project that will return the motel to what the first Route 66 motorists found.
“We want to make it as authentic a motoring experience from 1949 as we can make it,” said Deborah Harvey, one of two sisters who bought the Boots, which once was scheduled to be torn down for a Walgreens. “We want to make the rooms as though you’re stepping back in time.”
A four-night tour of the Mother Road included stays at the Wagon Wheel and Boots, as well as the Rail Haven, in Springfield, the city where Route 66 got its name, and the Munger Moss Motel, in Lebanon, where the iconic neon sign has been repaired and relit.
Route 66 ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, a total of 2,448 miles, including 317 miles in Missouri, from downtown St. Louis to the Kansas state line west of Joplin.
The highway was named officially in April 30, 1926, at a meeting in Springfield. It served as one of the nation’s chief east-west arteries until it was removed from the U.S. highway system in 1985, replaced by Interstates. Interstate 44 through Missouri now follows much of the route from St. Louis to Springfield.
But by then, its romantic status as a roadway to the west, and a pathway to adventure, had been recognized in song and on TV. “Get your kicks on Route 66” was the mantra of the faithful who refused to let the highway fade away.
Today, states such as Missouri have erected “Historic Route 66” signs along bypassed sections of the highway, and tourists come from the world over to drive its twisting two lanes and visit the Mom ‘n Pop motels and roadside attractions that still line its route.
“It’s the best way to see America, end to end,” said Echols, owner of the Wagon Wheel. “Overseas, it’s a prestige thing to ride 66, especially on a motorcycle. In summer, a third, maybe closer to a half, of my business is from overseas. One night last summer, we had 11 rooms rented from 10 different countries. Half of them didn’t speak English.”
Followers of the Mother Road know the important stops, and the people they’ll find there.
“I rented 36 rooms to travelers from Australia two weeks ago,” said Ramona Lehman, who owns the Munger Moss. “Last year, I had a group from the Union of South Africa.”
They come to stay in the motel, and to visit with Ramona and her husband, Bob, and hear their stories of life on the Road.
“I make sure I’m here when we have big groups,” Ramona said. “I had a guy from Brazil come in and he said, ‘Are you Ramona?’ He reached over to touch me and said, ‘You are real!’
“There’s something about the people who travel on Route 66. They fall in love with our country, and our road. It puts goose bumps on me.”
A labor of love
Connie Echols owned a florist shop on Route 66 in Cuba, but long had admired the Wagon Wheel, which included a gas station, café and motel.
“I always thought it was a cool place,” she said of the fieldstone buildings.
When the owners died, she bought it from their son and began the arduous restoration, which had to conform to the motel’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the old café houses the motel office and Connie’s Shoppe, which sells women’s accessories and souvenirs; the 19 rental rooms are stylishly decorated, with modern amenities.
“I know what I like when I travel – white linens, good beds and clean, up-to-date bathrooms,” Echols said. “We did keep the original doors and windows, and saved the hardwood floors that we could.”
Room 22 is a suite with a queen bed, table and chairs, and flat-screen TV in the front room. A jetted tub, shower, small refrigerator, microwave and granite-topped vanity are in the back room.
The motel has become a popular base for exploring Cuba, which is making an impressive bid as a tourist destination. The town has decorated its buildings with 12 murals, and is home to wineries and restaurants including Missouri Hick Barbeque, Frisco’s Grill and Pub, and Cuba Bakery and Deli.
“There were a few times I could have quit in the middle of it,” Echols said of her labor of love, “but I’ve never been a quitter.”
Rooms at the Wagon Wheel range from $55 for a single to $110 for the suites. Visit www.WagonWheel66Cuba.com, or call 573-885-3411.
Streamline Moderne architecture
Deborah Harvey, of Decatur, Ga., and her sister, Priscilla Bledsaw, of Decatur, Ill., are devoted Roadies who were making the trek from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2006, when they came upon the closed Boots Motel at the intersection of Route 66 and Highway 71, in Carthage.
“We were driving along and kept saying how fun it would be to own a hotel on Route 66 and wave at all the people going by,” said Harvey, who is 62 and a historic preservation consultant.
Five years later, the two were the proud owners of the motel built by Arthur Boots in 1939. The original had a gas station and eight rooms with carports. A back annex of five rooms with an underground garage was added in 1946.
The back building was the first to be restored, opening last May. The sisters combed the flea markets and used furniture shops in Carthage for antique chenille bedspreads and period furniture to decorate each room, many of which maintain their original wood floors and tiled bathrooms.
There are no TVs, but each room has a radio to fulfill Arthur Boots’ promise of “a radio in every room.”
Future plans include removing a gabled roof that was added later, spoiling the Streamline Moderne architecture of the main building, and replacing the green neon that decorated the exterior.
The sisters figure it will take up to five years to have the Boots back to original condition, but it’s already drawing international visitors.
“We got a couple of motorcyclists from Tahiti, and we’ve had people from nearly every European country,” Harvey said. “This is our first year, but we’re making enough money to pay the bills.”
And they’ve already achieved one of their important goals. “In the evening, we sit out front and wave to passersby,” Harvey said. “People will stop by and tell us stories about staying at the Boots.”
Rates for a single are $66 and for a double $71, as in Highway 71. Visit BootsMotel.Homestead.com, or call 417-310-2989.
State’s first Steak ‘N Shake
Springfield bills itself as the “Birthplace of Route 66,” and the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven is a good place to stay while exploring the city’s attractions.
The original Rail Haven, built by brothers Elwyn and Lawrence Lippman in 1938, had eight sandstone cottages with adjoining garages and a rail fence. By the time the motel became a founding member of the new Best Western chain in 1951, it had 28 rooms.
Today, that total is up to 98 and the original eight cottages have become part of a modern strip motel with all the expected amenities. Antique gas pumps, vintage signs and a pair of 1955 and 1956 Fords decorate the grounds, paying homage to its link to the historic highway.
“Nothing’s been torn down here,” said Tonya Pike, a Route 66 historian who helps in marketing the motel. “We’re considered a classic example of how a cottage court becomes a strip motel. There are other hotels out there as old as we are, but we’re the only one that’s a founding member of a national chain and still part of that chain.”
A brochure in the motel office describes other Route 66 highlights in Springfield, including the Rest Haven Court, Shrine Mosque, Gillioz Theatre and the first Steak ‘N Shake in Missouri, which has its original black-and-white sign and offers curb service.
Rates start at $79.99. Visit BWRailhaven.com, or call 800-304-0021.
Keeping it alive
Change may be coming to yet another landmark motel on Historic Route 66.
Ramona and Bob Lehman, who have owned the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon for 41 years, have listed it for sale.
The hotel has 44 rooms, and 17 two-room efficiencies. Some of the rooms are decorated with themes, including Room 18, which is dedicated to the dearly departed Coral Court Motel, the infamous no-tell-motel that was torn down and replaced by a subdivision in St. Louis.
“It’s decorated in pink and black,” Ramona said of Room 18. “I also call it my bordello room.”
Although Ramona and Bob, like their motel, are in good shape, they both are in their mid-70s and looking for a new lifestyle.
“I won’t sell it just to anybody,” Ramona said. “I want somebody who loves Route 66 to take it over. It’s part of our heritage. We’ve got to keep it alive for our kids.”
Rates are $48 for a single, and $55 for a double. Visit MungerMoss.com, or call 417-532-3111.
Tom Uhlenbrock writes travel stories for the State of Missouri.
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