MEMORIES OF ROUTE 66

In 1993, Wilma Atkins related the coming of the 'Mother Road' to eastern Laclede County

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Lebanon welcome sign.

When David Atkins was a young boy, the road his family traveled west to Lebanon or east to Bear Creek ran through the north edge of the farm. This trail followed the telegraph wires from St. Louis to Springfield and was called the “Wire Road.”

The name of the road was later changed to State Road 14 and then U.S. Highway 60. This route followed the highlands between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, crossing the Gasconade River near the present town of Waynesville in Pulaski County.

As the pioneers settled in Missouri, there was a need for a better way to take their products to town. Plank roads were built but would not carry the heavy traffic. The corduroy road was another attempt to carry the wagons and later the heavy automobiles through the mud. There was no bridge at the Gasconade River so if the river was up, no one could cross it. Saplings were laid across the river bottom to make a corduroy road.

Roads were just trails through the woods and open fields. David said he drove a 1917 Model T Ford to school part of the time and wore it out. He couldn’t make more than 10 or 15 miles per hour on the old trails.

In the early 1920s, the Missouri State Highway Department was organized and a system of main highways was laid out, one of which was U.S. Highway 66. The route was planned to extend southwest from St. Louis to the Oklahoma border.

There was a controversy as to how the route should go west from Rolla – through Mountain Grove or through Waynesville and Lebanon. Senator Phil Donnelly spoke in favor of the Lebanon route, and construction of U.S. Highway 66 through the Lebanon area began in 1926. The highway route followed much of the old original Wire Road. David’s dad gave the highway 13 acres on the north edge of the farm.

U.S. Highway 66, the “Main Street of America,” ran 1,500 miles from Chicago to California. It had many other names: “The Mother Road,” the “Backbone of America,” and “Bloody 66.” Whatever the name, Highway 66 symbolized a new way of life. David’s older brother, John, worked on the road as it was built through the Atkins Farm.

The workers had a camp in the area where Red Bud Hill Restaurant was built in 1985. There was a spring that furnished water for them. David sometimes walked through the area going to or from school and talked with the men. There were 25 or 30 men in the crew who lived in tents near the present Sleeper exit. One half of the men were black. One man they called Buster must have been seven feet tall. He wore a size 16 shoe and could drag a load of corn around the field to feed the horses and mules by pulling it with a wagon tongue. The crew kept a blacksmith with them to sharpen their tools. This was the beginning of the Great Depression, and men were desperate for any kind of job. The building of Highway 66 gave hundreds of men a weekly paycheck if they were willing to do the hard work.

Camp Joy in Lebanon was the first motel built along Highway 66 between St. Louis and Springfield.

Many years ago a request was made for a slogan to use on Highway 66 at the east and west entrances to Lebanon – Millcreek Road and Springfield Road. Miss Josephine Fayant’s suggestion “Lebanon – Our Town – Your Town” was chosen and huge oval signs were erected over these entrances, They extended a welcome to travelers coming from Highway 66 to our town and challenged them to accept Lebanon as their town also.

During my high school days I remember traveling Highway 66 to Springfield. Along the road we enjoyed riding through the country and reading poetry at the same time – a kind of advertising never seen before. Each line appeared on a separate successive sign, or billboard, which had been planted in the ground, spaced 50 paces or so apart. The verses varied, but at one time there were about 7,000 of them scattered across the country. They were Burma-Shave signs and some of them were: The Answer To/A Maiden’s Prayer/Is Not A Chin/Of Stubby Hair/Burma-Shave; Hardly A Driver/Is Now Alive/Who Passed on Hills/At 75--/Burma-Shave; Don’t Stick Your Elbow/Out So Far/It Might Go Home/In Another Car/Burma-Shave. By the 1950s, super highways were built and cars traveled too fast for riders to read the series, which meant the demise of chuckles along the road.

In 1953 the Missouri State Highway Department announced its plans to improve Highway 66 and began buying right-of-way from farmers along the route, including several acres of the Atkins Farm. Several years later they added two more lanes, making it a four-lane highway. They had to make a 40-foot cut where our road joined the highway, which cut off our access to the highway. The highway department made us a new road from the highway to our cattle guard. This was about one-half mile long, and they named it “Atkins Road.” In 1972 two more lanes were constructed, and Highway 66 became Interstate 44. They cut off our access again and constructed an Outer Road running parallel with I-44 to the first Lebanon exit. Atkins Road later was turned over to Laclede County and given the number X44-322.

* * * * * *

A “Highway 66 Association” was formed a few years ago. Many people who live, or lived years ago, in the area of the towns along Old Highway 66 joined the association. In 1990 the first Route 66 Motor Tour (using old model cars) was made through the area. In September 1991, the second tour was made, stopping at the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon. A number of activities surrounding the tour were held including a steak dinner at the Lebanon Elks’ Lodge and a ’50s Cruise, dance and other events at the Sonic Drive-In that night.

* * * * * *

From the May 11, 1961, issue of the Lebanon Rustic-Republican I read the following story by Billie Lee Walstrom about an incident which occurred along the area of our farm which eventually became U.S. Highway 66:

“In the center of a huge wheat field, now freshly plowed, is a little oasis of green trees and a jungle of grasses and undergrowth. Under the protecting branches of huge trees is a marble slab, so weather stained by the rain, sun and wind of the past 100 years that the inscription is hardly legible. But its wording tells a story of tragedy well worth printing – well worth remembering.

“’Alfred Smithpeter, born January 26, 1813, in Carter County, Tennessee – Murdered by Rebels, December 24, 1861, in Laclede County, Missouri – age 48 years, 11 months, 29 days.’

“Though he came from Tennessee, Alfred Smithpeter was a Union sympathizer at the outbreak of the war between the North and the South. Later, two of his sons, Columbus and Mike, were in the Union Army. The farm along the Old Wire Road, now known as Old Highway 66, was in territory traveled by soldiers of both armies and infested by guerilla bands, locally termed ‘Bushwhackers.’ The old Smithpeter home, destroyed by fire many years ago, was not far from the highway, and it was there that Alfred Smithpeter and his wife, Mary, and their seven children lived on that fateful day, December 24, 1861, when a band of guerillas were lurking near their home. Mr. Smithpeter saw them coming and knew that it meant death to him if he was caught.

“He tried to escape but one of the band had made his way to the rear of the home, so the only courageous thing he could do was defend his honor and fight. This he did as his wife and children assisted as best they could with his 12-year-old son, Albert, holding the door open for him. But a bullet from a guerilla’s gun shattered his shooting arm. They took him to the top of the hill not far from his home, tied him to a tree and shot him to death, leaving word that the body was to be removed at a certain time.

“A neighbor, Welk Stevens, cut the body down and brought it home, the burial being made in the family cemetery on the Smithpeter Farm where the peaceful grave covered now by tiger lilies and wild flowers still tells the true story of the Civil War on its weatherworn gravestone.

“Mrs. Smithpeter, left with a family of little children, later was married to John Broyles. She died in 1890, and as Mary C. Broyles was buried on the old Smithpeter Farm, but not in the old cemetery which was no longer used as a family burial ground, which explains the second lone grave on the edge of the field. Mary’s grave is on the left going east on old Highway 66, and her brave husband’s grave is on the right coming west on the new Highway 66 near the Bear Creek bridge and west of the Sleeper turnoff. The former Smithpeter Farm on Highway 66 is now owned by Mr. and Mrs. David Atkins.”

We sold the area where the Broyles grave was to Leo Pearcy, and he built the Red Bud Hill Restaurant. Willis Smithpeter of Stoutland, a great-grandson of Albert, engaged our neighbor, Nick O’Quinn, to move the grave. In the process they found nothing in the grave, but they did move the monument to the Smithpeter lot in the Lebanon City Cemetery.

* * * * * *

Because Highway 66 was a major highway, all types of people traveled through the area, including some questionable and undesirable characters. One morning, before she was old enough to go to school, Wilma Faye and I walked with Naomi to meet the school bus. As we started back, a man stopped and asked if we had eggs to sell. I told him that we did have eggs, so we got in his car and rode down to the house. He said that he was from Cleveland, Ohio. We sold him some eggs without even thinking about the possibility of danger, but I sure wouldn’t think of doing such a thing these days!

On the afternoon of November 17, 1954, as the girls got off the school bus, they saw several cars parked along our road and people wandering through the woods. The county sheriff and others in a search party had found the body of a 13-year-old girl in the woods on the north side of our road between Highway 66 and the house. It was revealed later that she had been murdered by her uncle and left there. They were from Texas. Naomi and Wilma Faye were walking that heavily wooded road each morning and afternoon.

Sometime later that year, the medical bag of a Lebanon physician, Dr. Weeks, was found lying along the side of our road in the ditch. It had been reported stolen.

In the 1960s, a Missouri State Trooper drove to our house one day and asked for a drink of water for a man he had with him. The man had been robbed, beaten and tied to a tree on our road east of the cattle guard. His shoes and his car had been taken by his assailant. The man had got loose from the tree and walked to the highway where the officer picked him up.

My cousin, Alma O’Dell, told me about an incident that happened soon after she and her husband Leonard were married in 1931. They lived on Highway 66, and one morning after Leonard, a postal employee, had gone to work two women came to her front gate and asked for breakfast. Alma would not ask them to come in, but she told them she would bring them something to eat. She quickly prepared food for them, which they ate, and then continued their walk. On another morning when Leonard went to the barn to feed and milk their cow, he found a man sleeping in the barnloft.

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Satellite Cafe and Station, just west of where the I-44 Speedway is today.

About 80 acres of the original farm are now highway property. The highway separated about 100 acres from the rest of the farm, and in 1960, David sold most of the acreage west of Old 66, (where the Smithpeter family cemetery is) to Loren Alloway who built a 24-hour Phillips 66 gas station, the Space Station, and Satellite Café. Naomi’s first job was at the Satellite Café during the summer of 1963. After I-44 was opened, Loren sold the property to Bill Willard who built the I-44 Speedway,

In the spring of 1989, a neighbor, Vicki Cox, called David and asked to interview him for a story on “Old 66,” which she was preparing for Briarwood, a relatively new magazine published semi-annually by the Lebanon Publishing Company. He was glad to be one of those assisting her with the story, as “66” was so familiar to him.

Vicki spent a few hours with us as she and David discussed its beginning in the area. We drove Vicki over many miles of this once-famous route, which has been publicized again after the “66 Association” was organized. David enjoyed traveling the old Highway 66 because of its nostalgic feature. Since the construction of I-44, Old 66 is used as an outer road mostly parallel to I-44.

The Missouri Legislature has dubbed Route 66 as a historic highway and has planted “Historic Route 66” signs along the highway. Most of the signs are stolen as soon as they go up. Those original black and white shield-shaped Route 66 signs sell for hundreds of dollars. Those people who have driven nothing but the interstate highways are starting to discover two-lane America. In October 1992, the Route 66 Motor Club and Car Club of Missouri, including about 70 vehicles, traversed the state to commemorate the once-great highway’s 66th anniversary. In November, one of their many stops was in Lebanon.

In June 1992, the Williams Arizona Historic Preservation Commission offered for sale chunks of concrete from the original Highway 66 for $4.66 – or $6.60 through the mail. “You put your hand on this and you can just feel those Dust Bowl people heading west to California,” said Teri Cleeland, an archeologist for Kaibab National Forest, who came up with the idea. Just 1,000 concrete chips – about 3 inches long and about half as wide – were available for sale. Proceeds from the sale were to be used to pay to renovate an old freight depot in Williams into a Route 66 museum.

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