Plans for lettering Underpass Cafe

Plans for lettering the Underpass Cafe.

The restoration of the exterior of the former Underpass Cafe at Phillipsburg should be complete by the end of this year, according to a timetable set by the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society board at its meeting Tuesday.

The project was announced in 2017, and the building was painted in 2018, but completion was placed on the back burner when the opportunity arose for the Route 66 Society to save and restore the only surviving cabin from Camp Joy, one of Lebanon’s first tourist courts.

All that remains to be done is to letter the Underpass Cafe as it appeared when it served meals to Route 66 motorists in the 1950s.

Loretta Young of Young Signs presented a proposal to the board for the lettering, which the board accepted with the condition that the lettering be finished this year. Route 66 Society board members will help with the project.

The Underpass Cafe, so named because of the famously low-clearance Frisco Railroad bridge just to its east, was part of a restaurant, four-pump gas station and garage complex operated by O.E. Carter and Ed Lawson. The prefabricated gas station opened in 1941. The concrete-block restaurant was added in 1950. Gary McMillan, who owns the property today, said last year that the garage was a barn moved to the site from elsewhere on the property.

McMillan said many truckers had to let the air out of their tires or detour around the bridge, which has a 14-foot-7-inch clearance today and even less clearance then. Westbound truckers refilled their tires at the Carter & Lawson station.

The businesses were cut off from the flow of traffic when New Route 66 – now Interstate 44 – was built in 1957, and they closed shortly thereafter. The cafe, now used for storage, and the garage still stand on McMillan’s farm, but a grain bin sits where the service station was.

The Route 66 Society has tried without success to find an affordable replica of the prefabricated gas station for the site.

A sign kiosk telling the story of the cafe may be added to the site at a later date.

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