Author Susan Croce Kelly began her “Father of Route 66: Cy Avery” presentation during the Miles of Possibility Conference in Edwardsville, Illinois, by imagining what would have happened if Edwardsville hosted a good-roads conference 100 years ago.
The city, which had about 5,000 residents, probably would have drawn a number of attendees well beyond the town’s population, so intense was the interest in good roads. Edwardsville in 1915 also sat at two highways — the East St. Louis-Springfield-Chicago Trail and the Burlington Way, so any improvement in roads would have benefited residents and businesses.
The nation’s road system also was beset by bad or nonexistent signage, jagged alignments and primitive road surfaces. Kelly, who also wrote a “Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery” and “Route 66: The Highway and Its People,” showed an old photograph of a Seminole, Oklahoma, street that turned into deep mud after a rain — an all-too-common condition of roads of the time. For Avery to drive across Missouri into Edwardsville would have taken days instead of hours.
“It was these terrible roads that brought us Route 66,” she said.
The Federal Highway Act of 1921 improved roads somewhat in each state, but the legislation lacked cohesion for the nation . The problem was even improved roads didn’t always connect neighboring states — a hurdle for a motorist planning a cross-country trip.
Kelly told the story about a great-uncle who was driving to pick up a relative in western Missouri when many area roads still were unpaved. During his journey, he encountered a one-mile stretch concrete. He was so thrilled by this discovery, he drove back and forth several times on the pavement before proceeding to his destination. The anecdote shows how hungry Americans were during the 1920s and ’30s for good roads.
Avery, a Tulsa resident who moved to Oklahoma from his native Pennsylvania when he was a teen, proved to be an ideal good-roads advocate because he was terrific storyteller, a good public speaker and, most importantly, an attentive listener. Avery gained many allies because of his empathy.
It was Avery and other good-roads advocates who shepherded federal rules that led to numbered highways across America in 1926. But a dispute erupted between highway commissioners and officials — especially in Kentucky — which path would be assigned U.S. 60. Advocates for route that would become U.S. 66 wanted U.S. 60. Kentucky boosters said U.S. 60 was supposed to be a coast-to-coast highway, and they wanted that number for a path in the Bluegrass State instead of the proposed U.S. 62.
Realizing the entire numbering system was endangered by the feud, Avery accepted a compromise of U.S. 66 for his Chicago-to-L.A. road, likely noting the number 66 had a certain appeal of its own. Kentucky got its U.S. 60.
The “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” song, “The Grapes of Wrath” novel and movie, the “Route 66” television show and the Disney-Pixar “Cars” animated film all played roles in cementing Route 66 in the public consciousness.
But Kelly said one of the most impactful things Avery’s fledgling U.S. 66 Highway Association did was allow the 3,400-mile Trans-American Footrace, aka Bunion Derby, in 1928. Newspaper sportswriters heavily covered the race across the country — including all of U.S. 66. Kelly said crowds watching the runners along Manchester Road in St. Louis reached six deep. U.S. 66 was thrust into the public eye less than two years after its birth.
In 1958, a few years before his death at 91 and three decades after shepherding U.S. 66, Avery wrote in a letter: “… Anyone interested in roads should never quit.” Apparently Avery’s passion never ceased.
(More stories from the Miles of Possibility Conference will be posted in the coming days)