During a trip home in January to see the old homestead in Illinois, I decided to drive most of my way back to Tulsa on U.S. 54 and see what old motels, old neon and roadside kitsch I could find.
U.S. 54 is about 1,200 miles. Its western terminus is at El Paso, Texas, and goes through New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. I started at the beginning, at Interstate 72 near Pittsfield in western Illinois.
I stayed overnight at the Green Acres Motel in Pittsfield, which is a clean, comfortable place built in the 1960s that goes for about $40 a room. And it has a fabulous neon sign. The desk clerk said a film crew had shot the neon sign some years ago, but she couldn't remember what movie.
One of Pittsfield's other jewels is the Cardinal Inn Cafe, which boasts not one, but two terrific neon signs. I ate a hearty breakfast there after a restful night at the Green Acres and found the cafe populated mostly by early-to-rise farmers.
Pittsfield also has the Zeno Theatre in its town square. It doesn't look prosperous, but it is being restored by a nonprofit group of volunteers. I think the group took its inspiration from the restoration of the Roxy Theatre in Shelbyville, Ill.
Heading west on U.S. 54 out of Pittsfield on a cold, cloudy morning, I encountered in the middle of nowhere the Clark 54 Drive-In, which is still operating (217-285-2805).
Below is the narrow bridge over the Mississippi River that goes into Louisiana, Mo. My father hauled farm implements over the bridge on a flatbed semi. The bridge was so narrow, it had to be barricaded to oncoming traffic for a couple minutes until he was able to drive to the other side.
Here are the remnants of the Shady Rest Motel in Laddonia, Mo.
In the main business district of Vandalia, Mo., I found the Vandalia Hotel. It's not only used as lodging (nine rooms), but as a restaurant.
As I approached Interstate 70 at Kingdom City, Mo., I saw some Route 66 flags flying next to a big retail development that resembled an Old West town. This was Nostalgiaville, which describes itself as "the coolest '50s and '60s store anywhere." Here is its Web site.
The sky started to clear and the sun came out. Unfortunately, this was about where U.S. 54 turns into a four-lane highway. Except for some scant old alignments, there was little to see until you went south of Jefferson City. Development from Jefferson City commuters also had obliterated much of the old road landmarks.
Around Eldon, Mo., you started to see the kitschy influence of the Lake of the Ozarks. Here is the Randles Court, which is a motel and a restaurant (573-392-5661).
At Lake Ozark, you are practically assaulted with roadside kitsch. Here are two Muffler Man specimens.
West of Lake Ozark, I was rounding a bend near the small settlement of Weaubleau, Mo., when I was stopped in my tracks by a bunch of well-kept motel cabins. This is the Weaubleau Motel, which was built in the late 1940s. I spoke briefly to the co-owner, Ron, who said he had done a lot of fix-up work on the cabins in recent years. The cabins go for $37.50 a night or $160 a week. It gets filled by many lake vacationers, he said. The phone number is (417) 428-3516. Places like the Weaubleau Motel are becoming increasingly rare, so check them out while you can.
I saw a few more old neon signs and old motels along the rest of my stretch of U.S. 54 across Missouri, but nothing too special.
But entering Fort Scott, Kan., I found the well-maintained Azure Sky Motel, which rents for $26.95 a person and $36.95 for two. The Lads have run the motel for 25 years (620-223-6410).