Thursday, July 29, 2010

MONTAGE: The Main Street of America goes Kansas.

"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything." ~Charles Kuralt

The federal government might have decommissioned U.S. Route 66 twenty-five years ago, but you don’t have to be middle-aged to recognize the name, or even to appreciate it. In fact, the Mother Road seems to have only lodged itself more securely into the American consciousness with each passing year; I’d venture to guess that even most teenagers are at least familiar with its existence. Aside from the roadside businesses and concomitant folk architecture that this celebrated route spawned, it also helped to elicit a hit song by Bobby Troup, a successful TV series, a gas station chain (Phillips 66), heritage associations in each of the route’s eight states, and numerous books and museums. Disney’s hit movie Cars originally was going to be named after the iconic road. This original paved link between Chicago to Los Angeles/Santa Monica boasts contests to win tour packages in the UK, while the blogosphere is filled with chronicles from people of many nationalities who have taken the legendary road trip. Its mystique stretches across the globe, despite—and then because of—the fact that it is as Americana as Monopoly.

At this point, it’s amazing to think that, despite the tsunami of cultural references we confront each year, much of the built environment that this asphalt artery helped to sustain is decaying. And the decay began long before the official decommissioning; if anything, the slam of the hammer against the coffin’s nail only galvanized interest in saving what still survived. The historic neon-accented motels routinely fall into American and international preservationists’ most endangered historic places. They’ve lost their reason for being since so much of the classic two-lane highway has been upgraded into four-lane, limited access interstate, thereby choking the original businesses from the vast majority of transcontinental travelers. Its extreme popularity led to its upgrade to a limited access interstate under Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, but this upgrade resulted in the near demise of the stop-and-go roadside culture. Last year, President Obama signed the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Reauthorization Act, extending a National Park Service program the essentially recognizes the upkeep of Route 66 is less a transportation or public works route and more a multi-state historic preservation ambition.

How well is it working? Federal aid is no doubt most visible through the improved/restored signage, with the emblematic logo resting on a backdrop of brown, which is usually the color for historic and cultural sites.

Alas, I have not traveled the entire trajectory of the Mother Road, but I can at least boast that I’ve been through more or less the entirety of Route 66’s path through Kansas: all 12 miles of it. Among the eight states, Kansas claims the smallest portion of the route by a long shot: all of the others get at least 100 miles, and New Mexico boasts nearly 500 miles. However, the entirety of Kansas’ portion remains a two-lane highway, passing exclusively through Cherokee County (the southeastern-most county in the state) and through only two real communities: Galena and Baxter Springs. The map below outlines in purple the path of Route 66 through Kansas, providing a brief link between the historically much longer portions in Missouri and Oklahoma.

Galena is an aggressively depopulating old mining town, with very little remaining of what was probably once an extensive main street. It may earn a blog post of its own. Riverton is an unincorporated community so small I failed to notice anything significant about it during the twenty seconds it took to pass through it. (Apparently the Eisler Brothers Country Store in Riverton is a Mother Road institution.) Far more prominent is the most southerly town in Kansas on the route, Baxter Springs, just a mile or so away from the Oklahoma Border.

The town’s main street is hardly flourishing, but it is alive enough to suggest that the community is trying—and virtually every establishment has some reference to Route 66. The photo series that follows only includes what is contained in the green rectangle on the map below:

Baxter Springs’ downtown is a mere three blocks. But the iconography of Route 66 is everywhere. I would expand upon this montage with a more detailed analysis, but many others before me have done a far better job. Among them is Arthur Krim’s Route 66: Iconography of the American Highway (2006, Center for American Places). My copy of this book is stored far away from my access right now; hopefully someday I’ll recover it and use it to enhance the analytical component of this blog post. In the meantime, I present Military Avenue, the main street of Baxter Springs, laden with references to the Main Street of America.

These banners appear systematically at almost every one of the streetlights of “vintage” design along the primary commercial section of Military Avenue in Baxter Springs. In hindsight, I wish I had taken more care to capture everything about these streetlights in one snapshot, but I didn’t. At any rate, even the street signs have the vintage Route 66 logo—an unsurprising but winsome touch.

All and all, the streetscape is spartan but clearly not neglected. Here’s the east side of the street:

And the west side:

The Historic District in its entirety isn’t terribly active, but it is generally intact, and although many of the buildings are shuttered or vacant, most appear fundamentally maintained.

Café on the Route has smartly tied its name to the heritage corridor upon which it rests, regardless of whether or not it’s a true Route 66 institution. I’m impelled to believe it is not: most of the genuine surviving establishments make no reference to the road in their names, because they pre-date the point when the road became a cultural artifact. This Café’s self-awareness suggests that its owners located here to capitalize on the legacy, and who can blame them? The building itself appears diligently preserved and includes an attractive mural.

To the left of the mural is a placard, indicating that building is within the purview of the Hampton Inn Save-a-Landmark program, an outreach preservation campaign involving considerable time and money, and the first example of a major hotel chain (Hilton) earning recognition for its preservation efforts. Apparently the Café on the Route’s building predates the Mother Road by over fifty years and was originally a bank robbed by Jesse James in 1876.

On the other side of Military Avenue stands the structure in the photo above, which according to this site on Kansas’ Historic Route 66, housed a true highway institution, Murphey’s Restaurant, until recently. The vinyl cladding and vintage sign, visible on the website, have clearly since been removed. It appears to me that the edifice is undergoing a renovation, having received what appear to be brand-new windows—a big no-no among preservationists if not conscientiously implemented, but a positive for Baxter Springs if it augurs a real reinvestment in the building. Traces of the old Route 66 logo still linger.

Apparently local artists have attempted to enliven some of the other vacant storefronts with references to the route in the windows:

Antique stores and flea markets, which appear to be the dominant uses along Baxter Springs’ main street, are replete with decal logos in the windows, or other Route-related bric-a-brac.

This may be the Café on the Route’s biggest competition:

This old Philips 66 no doubt stopped providing an oil change and tire rotation decades ago.

But the building is in excellent shape, and today it hosts a visitors’ center, which, judging from the sign, is less about Baxter Springs and more about the Route—a wise decision.

The lackadaisically run auto shop across the street from the center still took care to reference the Route.

But most remarkable in all of Baxter Springs is an apparently recent incarnation on the east side of Military Avenue: a soda fountain.

According to a local, the Route 66 Soda Fountain was funded through the Abernathy Charitable Trust and a children’s foundation. The Bill Abernathy Memorial Lifetime Learning Center operates solely as a 501(c)(3) organization, providing entertainment and activities to keep Baxter Springs’ youth out of trouble, as well as GED programs and adult education classes. Each vintage booth has outlets for laptops, and the place features high-speed wireless Internet. And it does serve ice cream, though I could not determine for certain if the building ever serves non-local visitors. It was not scheduled to open until later that evening, but peering in the glass, I witnessed what appeared to be an impeccable duplication of the soda fountains from days passed:

The highway continues southward from the historic district, along what is now labeled Alternate U.S. Highway 69, passing through what constitutes the modern-day commercial hub of Baxter Springs: Pizza Hut, KFC, O’Reilly Auto Parts, McDonald’s, and, a bit further down the road, a strip mall with a Dollar General and Wal-Mart.

I’m sanguine about the future of Baxter Springs. The commercial building stock is excellent and in good repair. The town’s boosters clearly know what its strongest asset is, and they have done their utmost to highlight it to passers-by. And most motorists passing through the town will be traveling along Alternate U.S. Highway 69—the historic Route 66—for utilitarian or recreational purposes. The utilitarian travelers are most likely on their way to something else, or perhaps they work in Baxter Springs. The recreational drivers are the key, and for nearly all of them, the route itself is the primary attraction, because it serves as a conduit to any sundry eye-catching curiosities along the curbs.

Perhaps Route 66 will experience, or is currently experiencing, a renaissance all its own. Maybe the Disney movie stimulated interest among a new generation. Maybe federal preservation grants are helping, but something tells me they are less than critical—they certainly aren’t mandating tour buses filled with Norwegians to pass through towns like Baxter Springs. This town in the corner of Kansas will find its modern reason for being by connecting with its past, which is as clichéd an ambition as there ever was. But while Baxter Springs’ history may be unremarkable or simply uninteresting on its own, the prominence of the Mother Road in American/global mythology gives it a competitive edge over another Kansas town twenty miles away. Baxter Springs is a stop on the quintessential road trip.


sacs.66 said...

I was so excited to find your blog while searching for old storefronts! Amazing! I am getting ready to retire this year and move back HOME after 35 years of being away. I have high hopes of owning one of these old buildings and you gave great honor to our town on your visit.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks so much for writing, and glad you liked it. With so many surviving buildings on its old Main Street, I think Baxter Springs has a great chance to capitalize on the biggest feather in its cap: being part of a surviving stretch of Route 66. I wish the town--and you--all the best.