“Main Street Through St. Louis” is different. Most exhibits and museums about Route 66 focus on the entire road. This one zeroes in on the Mother’s Road’s impact on a particular city. Route 66 began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles. It passed through 100 population centers as it diagonaled west, and St. Louis was the largest of the 100.
With neon signs, a telephone booth, a jukebox, etc. this singular show takes all age groups back to an earlier era. I was glad to see school field trips wandering through, and I heard grandparents telling grandchildren about landmarks on Route 66 that were part of their lives but no longer exist. This highway’s national impact was considerable. Between 1926 and its slow diminishment in the 1950s, Route 66 carried migrant workers West, moved troops and materiel during World War II, and encouraged the development of a growing industry, tourism.
Some St. Louis landmarks owe their success to proximity to 66. The Chase Hotel has been redone and is now a tourist attraction in midtown. Crown Candy Kitchen was 2 block away from it and continues to thrive. So does Ted Drewes, maker of the best frozen custard in the world. The first McDonald’s west of the Mississippi River was erected on Route 66, and a modern McDonald’s is still on the spot. When we lived in St Louis, Ruth & I always took visitors to the Ted Drewes at 6726 Chippewa Street, an address on 66’s city route.
Gone are drive-in theaters, tourist traps, and many motels. The notorious Coral Court Motel, where patrons could rent a room by the hour and park their cars in anonymous garages, is history. Not gone is the Chain of Rocks Bridge that allowed travelers to bypass St. Louis. A considerable risk, it had a wicked curve half way across it. Today it’s strictly for pedestrians. Gone is the nearby Chain of Rocks Amusement Park.
This exhibit does a good job of exploring the unknown and forgotten. I didn’t know about the Negro Motorist Green Book. It told African-Americans on the road where they could shop and stay. One is on display. I didn’t know that 2 years after 66 officially opened a footrace from LA to NYC was held to promote it. Andy Payne won this race in 84 days. He spent 573 hours crossing the country.
St. Louis was once a car manufacturing dynamo. Between 1954 and 1981, for example, 11,000 Corvettes were made in the General Motors plant in North St. Louis. A 1963 model made there that cost $4,037 new is on display. It’s clearly one of the most popular items, and a guard had to be stationed near it after the exhibit opened to avoid trouble.
Route 66 is still leaving its mark on this city, and this exhibit at the Missouri History Museum does this subject justice. It will not close until July 16, 2017. St. Louis is in the middle of the United States. Go.