Some may assume Cyrus Avery became known as “The Father of Route 66” simply because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when the highway became designated and federally certified in 1926.
But as Susan Croce Kelly’s well-researched new biography shows, Avery’s involvement in Route 66’s birth and its rise to worldwide fame was anything but an accident. The book — the first solely devoted to him — lays out convincingly how Avery’s talent, his background, his drive and his confidence all were crucial to the Mother Road eventually becoming a legend.
One section of “Father of Route 66” (288 pages, hardback, University of Oklahoma Press, e-book available) signals Avery’s crucial role to the road. Shortly after the founding of the U.S. 66 Highway Association — for which Avery became vice president and, later, president — Avery started calling the highway the “Main Street of America.” Advocates for U.S. 40 and the Roosevelt-Midland Trail also used the nickname, and the Lincoln Highway probably had it, too. But because of Avery’s persistence, the “Main Street of America” tag stuck to 66.
Outside of Tulsa, Cyrus Avery probably would have been little more than a footnote in history books if Route 66 hadn’t started its revival during the early 1990s. By that time, Avery had died almost 30 years before, and he said his proudest accomplishment was not Route 66, but shepherding the building of a 50-mile pipeline from the Spavinaw Creek to give Tulsa a much more reliable water supply. And despite Avery’s growing posthumous stature — including an elaborate statue on Route 66 in his honor — even the biggest Route 66 experts were unsure where Avery was buried until I tracked it down a few years ago.
Croce Kelly was an ideal author to tackle a book on Avery’s life, as she and photographer Quinta Scott published the essential “Route 66: The Highway and Its People” in 1990. Still, she had a challenge: By the time she announced the project, Avery had been dead for a half-century. Save for grandchildren and a few other folks, barely any people remembered Avery when he was alive.
Fortunately, the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa owned a substantial archive of Avery’s papers, and the man himself was so much in the public eye that plenty of material was found in the Tulsa World and other newspaper databases. Croce Kelly unearthed a lot of verified material about Avery and weaved it into the smooth and easy-reading narrative in “Father of Route 66.” In the occasions Croce Kelly speculates about what happened during a point Avery’s history, at least it’s well-informed speculation.
Avery was born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, but in his early teens moved 1,200 miles to northeast Oklahoma in a covered wagon when his father sought new opportunities after a deep recession in 1873. (Croce Kelly argues convincingly that Avery’s arduous journey helped convince him early about the importance of good roads.) The family settled in a dilapidated former homestead of Confederate Army general and Cherokee Indian Stand Watie.
Avery earned a bachelor’s degree at a teachers college but soon found himself adept in buying and selling real estate in Oklahoma — especially in the Tulsa area. His real-estate business put him in touch with many influential people in the state and gave him a sense of what the region needed to thrive.
One of Avery’s gifts was his ability to relate to anyone. It was said he could converse just as amiably with an oil tycoon as with a blue-collar worker or a small child.
He also proved to be an engaging public speaker. The Commercial Club — a forerunner to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce — quickly grasped his speechmaking skills and made Avery its primary public face. Avery also owned a farm on the edge of town where he often invited out-of-town guests for a meal and a few whiskeys to sell an idea or talk over how to improve Tulsa.
One of those passions on how to improve the city was to shore up its chronically muddy highways and streets. He proved to be an ideal advocate in the better-roads movement that was burgeoning nationwide. He brought the first split-log drags to Oklahoma in 1907 and paid several Tulsa County farmers $1 a mile to grade the roads after each rain. He directed the planting of sweet clover near the roads to better hold together the soil and reduce erosion; that clover still can be seen growing near Tulsa County’s rural roads.
During the early teens, he became a booster of the Ozark Trail — a predecessor of U.S. 66. Avery successfully lobbied in 1916 for a bond issue to build the 11th Street Bridge over the Arkansas River. The bridge later carried Route 66 and stands today. He advocated for the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Through it all, it seemed he attended dozens — perhaps hundreds — of meetings over the decades on how to improve roads in the nation and his adopted home base of Tulsa County.
During the 1920s, Avery overhauled the Oklahoma State Highway Department by eschewing cronyism and hiring qualified employees to improve roads. (He later was fired, but Avery had the last laugh when that governor was impeached and removed from office for incompetence.)
The irony about his “Father of Route 66” tag was that infighting between states in early 1926 nearly sunk the landmark agreement that produced numbered federal highways. Kentucky officials quarreled over the placement of U.S. 60, which Avery wanted for his Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway. Aware a landmark roads agreement was in peril, Avery compromised and accepted U.S. 66 for his road instead. Avery might have made that decision pragmatically for the greater good, but one also suspects he saw the marketing potential for “66” was well.
Avery’s involvement in improving Tulsa wasn’t limited to roads. In addition to that water line, he shepherded the development of Tulsa International Airport and the enormous Mohawk Park. He served as president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce for a time. Although he nearly was financially ruined by the Great Depression, he remained active in local boosterism well into his late 80s.
And Avery seemed like a genuinely good guy. He ran Red Cross relief efforts for thousands of homeless Greenwood residents after the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Avery also repeatedly was on the right side of history in clashes with the Ku Klux Klan, which ran much of the state at the time. Despite being offered a proposal from the Oklahoma Legislature that would have improved roads, he turned it down because the same bill would have prohibited black people from voting. Avery occasionally was accused of corruption, but those allegations never were credible. The only obvious direct benefit from his better-roads efforts was his building a gas station, motel and the Old English Inn cafe on a busy Admiral Place street in Tulsa, which later became Route 66.
Thanks to popular culture — Bobby Troup’s perennially covered “Route 66,” the “Route 66” television drama and now Disney-Pixar’s “Cars” movie — and Route 66’s own colorful history, the Main Street of America has arguably become the world’s most famous highway. And, as “Father of Route 66” shows, that highway was very fortunate to have Cyrus Avery as its early champion to lay the foundation of its rise.