Owners of original, vintage motels along Route 66 in Missouri are doing their best to see that motorists keep traveling the legendary highway, known as The Mother Road.
Any tour of the Mother Road should include stays at the Wagon Wheel Motel, in Cuba; the Boots Court Motel, in Carthage; as well as the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven, in Springfield (the city where Route 66 got its number); and the Munger Moss Motel, in Lebanon, where the iconic neon sign has been repaired and is once again lighting the way.
Route 66 ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, a total of 2,448 miles. From downtown St. Louis to the Kansas state line, west of Joplin, it covered 317 miles within Missouri.
The highway was officially named Route 66 on April 30, 1926, at a meeting in Springfield. The new, modern roadway served as one of America’s chief east-west arteries, until it was removed from the U.S. highway system in 1985, replaced by Interstates. Now, I-44 through Missouri follows much of the original route.
Route 66’s romantic status as a roadway to the west, and a pathway to adventure, was recognized in song: “Get your kicks on Route 66,” is the mantra of the faithful who refuse to let the highway fade away.
Today, Missouri has erected “Historic Route 66” signs along bypassed sections of the original roadway. Tourists come from the world over to drive its twisting two lane blacktop and visit the Mom ‘n Pop motels and roadside attractions that still line the route.
The Wagon Wheel Motel, in Cuba, is in tip-top shape after a complete renovation under Connie Echols, who bought the rundown motel in 2009 and has lovingly restored each of the stone cottages. “It was horrible,” Echols said of the motel, which was built in 1935 and is the oldest continuously operating tourist court on the historic highway. “It had the original wiring and plumbing.”
“It’s the best way to see America, end to end,” said Echols, owner of the Wagon Wheel. “Overseas, it’s a prestige thing to ride 66, especially on a motorcycle. In summer, a third, maybe closer to a half, of my business is from overseas. One night, we had 11 rooms rented from 10 countries. Half of them didn’t speak English.”
Echols, who owned a florist shop on Route 66, had long admired the Wagon Wheel Motel, which included a gas station and a cafe. “I always thought it was a cool place,” she said of the fieldstone buildings. When the owners died, she bought it and began the arduous restoration, which had to conform to the motel’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the original cafe houses the motel office and Connie’s Shoppe, where you can buy women’s accessories and souvenirs; the 19 rental rooms are stylishly decorated, with modern amenities; they did keep the original doors and windows, and saved most of the hardwood floors.
The Wagon Wheel has become a popular base for exploring Cuba, a town making impressive advances as a tourist destination. Cuba’s downtown buildings are adorned with a dozen colorful murals, depicting the history of the area. “There were a few times I could have quit in the middle of it,” Echols said of her labor of love, “but I’ve never been a quitter.”
Followers of the Mother Road know the important stops, and the people they’ll find there. “I rented 36 rooms to travelers from Australia,” said Ramona Lehman, who, with husband Bob, owned the Munger Moss, in Lebanon since 1971. “Another time, I had a group from the Union of South Africa.” They come to stay in the motel, and to visit with Ramona and Bob, and to hear stories of life on The Road.
“I make sure I’m here when we have big groups,” Ramona said. “I had a guy from Brazil come in and he said, ‘Are you Ramona?’ He reached over to touch me and said, ‘You are real!’ There’s something about the people who travel on Route 66. They fall in love with our country, and our road. It puts goose bumps on me,” she said.
The Munger Moss Motel has 44 guestrooms, and 17 two-room efficiencies. Some of the rooms are decorated with themes, including Room 18, which is dedicated to the dearly departed Coral Court Motel, the infamous “no-tell-motel” that was torn down in St. Louis. “Eighteen is decorated in pink and black,” Ramona said. “I call it my bordello room.”
At the time of this writing, Ramona and Bob had listed the Munger for sale. Like their motel, they are in good shape; but they are in their mid-70s and looking for an easier lifestyle. “I won’t sell it just to anybody,” Ramona said. “I want somebody who loves Route 66 to take it over. It’s part of our heritage. We’ve got to keep it alive for our kids.”
In Carthage, one wing of the Boots Motel is restored to what the first Route 66 motorists found; restoration is under way on the rest of the facility. “We want to make it as authentic a motoring experience from 1949 as we can make it,” said Deborah Harvey, one of two sisters who bought the Boots, which was scheduled to be torn down for a Walgreens.
Deborah Harvey, of Decatur, Georgia, and her sister, Priscilla Bledsaw, of Decatur, Illinois, are devoted Roadies who were making the trek from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2006 when they came upon the closed Boots Motel, in Carthage, at the intersection of Route 66 and Route 71.
“We were driving along and kept saying how fun it would be to own a hotel on Route 66 and wave at all the people going by,” said Harvey, who is 62 and a historic preservation consultant. Five years later, the two were the proud owners of the motel built by Arthur Boots in 1939. The original had a gas station and eight rooms with carports; a back annex of five rooms with an underground garage was added in 1946.
The back building was the first to be restored. The sisters searched flea markets and used furniture shops, seeking antique chenille bedspreads and period furniture to decorate each room, many of which maintain their original wood floors and tiled bathrooms. There are no TVs, but each room has a radio to fulfill a promise made by Arthur Boots: “A radio in every room.”
The sisters are constantly striving to get the Boots Motel back to original condition; it’s already drawing international visitors. “We got a couple of motorcyclists from Tahiti, and we’ve had people from nearly every European country,” Harvey said.
Deborah and Priscilla have already achieved one of their important, original goals. “In the evening, we sit out front and wave to passersby,” Harvey said. “People will stop by and tell us stories about staying at the Boots.”
Springfield bills itself as the “Birthplace of Route 66.” The Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven is a good place to stay while exploring the city’s many attractions. The original Rail Haven, built by brothers Elwyn and Lawrence Lippman in 1938, had a split-rail fence around eight sandstone cottages with adjoining garages. By 1951, when the motel became a founding member of the new Best Western chain, it had 28 guestrooms.
Today, the Rail Haven is up to 98 guestrooms, where the original eight cottages have become part of a modern strip-style motel, with all of the expected amenities. Antique gas pumps, vintage signs and a 1955 and a 1956 Ford decorate the grounds, paying homage to its place on the historic highway.
“Nothing’s been torn down here,” said Tonya Pike, a Route 66 historian who helps in marketing the motel. “We’re considered a classic example of how a cottage court becomes a strip motel. There are other hotels out there as old as we are, but we’re the only one that is a founding member of a national chain; and we’re still part of that chain.”
Missouri’s Route 66 offers down-home restaurants and award-winning wineries; loads of entertainment and attractions; caves and historic sites; hunting and fishing; floating spring-fed streams; and all manner of lodging, from quaint bed and breakfast inns to modern campgrounds and RV sites. The Show-Me State invites everyone to come-on-down and experience a true legend, The Mother Road, where you can . . . get your kicks on Route 66.