Book review: “Secret Route 66”

Here’s where you know Jim Ross and Shellee Graham’s new book, “Secret Route 66,” is a success: Not only did they uncover more than a dozen obscure tidbits from the Mother Road that escaped my notice, I jumped into my car to search for one that was nearby.

Subtitled “A Guide to the Weird,Wonderful and Obscure,” the book (softcover, 202 pages, photographs, Reedy Press) benefits mightily from the husband-and-wife team having explored Route 66 for decades — Ross researching Route 66 bridges and historical alignments and Graham researching St. Louis’ long-gone Coral Court Motel and documenting the route with her photography. They’ve uncovered innumerable stories and facts during their years on the road and decided to reveal many to the rest of us.

Like another recent Reedy Press book, “100 Things to Do on Route 66 Before You Die,” it contains brief entries of several paragraphs and photographs, plus an information box of what, where, cost and “pro tips.” Each little chapter can be read in a few minutes.

Newbies to Route 66 probably will be awed by all the stuff Ross and Graham collected. I’ve explored Route 66 for almost 20 years, and here are things new to me I found in “Secret Route 66” (no spoilers):

  • The Prohibition-era Kentucky Club in Oklahoma City
  • The kidnapping and murder of teenager Billie Grayson in Chandler, Oklahoma, in 1941
  • The annual homecoming of tiny Alanreed, Texas
  • The 1919 Lick Creek Bridge near Chatham, Illinois
  • A 1920s to ’30s Federal Aid Project marker near the closed Vega Motel in Vega, Texas
  • The use of unique “clinker bricks” at Memorial Park Cemetery in Oklahoma City
  • What the “Chandler O.T.” inscription means on bricks found in Chandler, Oklahoma
  • Why Bobby Troup’s song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” uses a “root” pronunciation instead of the more-common “rowt” during the era
  • The fate of the Mesa Court sign that stood along Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico. This is the entry that inspired the road trip to check it out.

Even with landmarks with which I was familiar, Ross and Graham found things that escaped my notice. For instance, the fabled brick Route 66 near Auburn, Illinois, didn’t use bricks in its construction until after highway officials moved U.S. 66 to the east in 1930. The likely explanation on why bricks were used will surprise no one who’s lived in Illinois for any length of time.

With tales of murders, ghosts and monsters along the old highway, “Secret Route 66” tends to run a bit to the macabre side. That may be partly by design, as the book’s publication comes just a few weeks before Halloween. Regardless, that doesn’t make the book any less informative or entertaining.

Highly recommended.

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