Getting kicks with Will
Will Rogers and Route 66 have an intertwined history.
From 1892 to 1895, a young man named Will Rogers traveled a 40-mile cattle trail from his family ranch near Oologah to Willie Halsell College, a Methodist boarding school near Vinita. That trail became part of U.S. 66in 1926.
Rogers played a major role in publicizing the “Mother Road” with his syndicated newspaper columns on the 1928 Bunion Derby and on Model-T Ford drivers racing from Claremore to Beverly Hills, California, wrote Joseph H. Carter in Route 66 Magazine.
A congressional resolution to name Route 66 in honor of Will Rogers was considered in 1935 but was not finalized. The highway unofficially was dubbed the Will Rogers Highway by the U.S. Highway 66 Association in 1952.
Oklahoma’s first Will Rogers monument was established in 1999 by the Will Rogers Monument Committee of Vinita, said Amber Egnor, of the Vinita Area Chamber of Commerce. Historical markers were placed along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.
The life of Will Rogers and his place in Route 66 history now are showcased in the Will Rogers Memorial Museum on a Claremore hillside.
‘Crossroads of Commerce’
Route 66 also has become famous for iconic sites and businesses, which are celebrated by the “Crossroads of Commerce: A History of Free Enterprise in Oklahoma” exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.
“A contrasting reaction to the accelerating pace of life in the 1960s and 1970s was the growing allure of two-lane roads and lost Americana,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Reinforced by the fruits of historic preservation at both the national and local levels, a new business sector emerged that banked on the public’s attraction to neon signs, forgotten motor courts and roadside attractions.
“There was no better place to find those treasures than on Route 66, known as the Mother Road or Will Rogers Highway.”
A video in the “Crossroads of Commerce” exhibit describes iconic sites and businesses along Route 66. One of those businesses, an early way station in Oklahoma, was a two-story stucco structure built in 1929 a few miles east of Weatherford. The most famous owner was Lucille Hammons, who lived there, operated the service station and managed the adjacent motor court. Now known as Lucille’s, the building is visible from Interstate 40.
Another site on the Will Rogers Highway is the Foyil Totem Pole Park. In 1937, this famous folk art attraction was developed northeast of Claremore by manual arts teacher Ed Galloway. The central totem pole featured a 90-foot-tall piece of painted concrete on the back of a turtle with 200 images of American Indians, symbols and animal figures. The park also includes the Fiddle House, an 11-sided structure for selling fiddles to tourists.
During the early 1970s, Hugh Davis built Route 66’s iconic Blue Whale next to a spring-fed pond near Catoosa. Davis added picnic tables, sand beaches and a replica of Noah’s Ark. Over time the Blue Whale fell into disrepair, but in recent years, community groups have restored this fun roadside attraction.
In 2007, when Route 66 was gaining international popularity, Oklahoma oilman and entrepreneur Aubrey McClendon opened a new addition to the Will Rogers Highway sightseeing list, Pops. Designed by award-winning architect Rand Elliott, Pops features a modern gas station, restaurant, gift shop and event venue.
Pops also features a 66-foot-tall sculptural pop bottle, illuminated by LED lights, and a 110-foot cantilevered canopy.
“Inside, the road theme continued with souvenirs and more than 600 different pop varieties for sale, including more than 80 root beers,” Blackburn said. “As Oklahoma natives McClendon and Elliott proved, the substance and spirit of Route 66 is still alive.”
The story of Will Rogers Highway, and the ways that historic preservation along Route 66 contributes to local economies, can be found in exhibits at the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton.
One popular exhibit at the museum is one of the Will Rogers Highway markers at the entrance. Travelers enjoy finding these markers and stopping at each one along the highway.
“A few years ago, the friends of the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum Inc., with the assistance of Virgil Smith, completely restored a Valentine Diner as a special exhibit at the museum,” said Pat Smith, director of the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum. “People travel Route 66 from across the United States and around the world to see the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, which is the largest museum dedicated to the history and culture of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica (California).
“This proves that preservation along Route 66 enhances community revitalization, economic development and sustainable tourism along America’s iconic Mother Road.”
“Nostalgia has made vacationing on Route 66 a popular pastime,” Blackburn said. “Historic preservation along Route 66 has ensured that a new generation can enjoy the simple pleasures of a road trip, and that local economies remain vibrant.”
ALONG THE ROUTE CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: A diner scene inside the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton. [PHOTO PROVIDED BY OKLAHOMA HISTORICAL SOCIETY] The grounds of the Will Rogers Memorial. [PHOTO BY PAUL HELLSTERN, THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES] The Blue Whale, in Catoosa, is along Route