A couple of years ago my husband and I were driving along Historic Route 66 from Pacific to Gray Summit. As we approached the gas station just east of the historic Shaw Nature Reserve stone wall, I became aware of a horde of motorcycles parked at the gas station exit as though ready to pull onto the roadway.
A closer look revealed that the riders were all older than 50, to be politically correct. Their removed helmets revealed gray to white hair.
“Stop, Bob,” I said. “Let me see what this is.”
When I approached the man closest to me, and asked what the group was, he looked confused, as though I were some kind of oddity. He turned to draw attention to the other riders, who all smiled but shook their heads. “No English,” one said. Then a smiling man came forward, totally white haired, dressed in motorcycle gear, happy as all get out.
“Who are you folks?” I asked. “You look like a group with a purpose.”
“We’re from Sweden,” he said. “We are traveling Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.”
“You shipped your motorcycles here from Sweden?” I asked, more a question than a rhetorical comment.
As it turned out, a savvy travel company in Chicago plans personalized trips for foreign tourists. The firm rented the motorcycles in Los Angeles and transported them to Chicago where the visitors picked them up. The tourists would return the motorcycles to the rental company in L.A.
I was reminded of that on Sunday when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a feature story on Route 66. It focused on two “vintage motels” that were being restored to their original condition. The owners believe that Route 66 is worth investing in.
The Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, built in 1935, consisting of a series of stone cottages, has been completely restored.
“Route 66 is the best way to see America end to end,” Connie Echols, who bought the motel in 2009, was quoted as saying.
Cuba, as anyone who has been there knows, is the city of murals. Large historic murals cover the entire side of one building after another and capture the eyes of motorists who get off of Interstate 44 and drive through the town.
But here’s the thing, Pacific has one of the most navigable sections of Route 66 of any city trying to capitalize on the mother road. From the U.S. Silica Plant to Integram Drive, Osage Street, or Historic Route 66, it’s all easy to find and easy to travel.
In fact, from the Allenton I-44 exit at Six Flags all the way to Union, Route 66 is identifiable and pleasant.
Now, back to the murals that must have cost a pretty penny and lots of hours. We have the most striking natural art in Pacific that anyone could dream up in the form of a series of white bluff faces, columns and intriguing cave openings. The natural formations, with the places where they were hacked away by men upward of a century ago, are intriguing and to some beautiful.
I have to tell you . . . I have a personal interest in Historic Route 66. For much of this year, I chaired the mayor’s Welcome Center Committee, which was formed to create a plan for a Pacific visitor center. Our committee completed a business plan for a viable and sustainable visitor center. The plan got caught up in the city’s wrangle over what to do with two former historic buildings that could, or would, or might serve as a visitor center.
One was the former Wolf residence, home of the history museum, and the other was Hoven house, a former residence with a pretty history that the city bought with a plan in mind to combine the museum with a welcome center.
Now, the city is trying to sell the Hoven Building, a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian structure that is in good condition as a residence. It sits on Historic Route 66 with a profile so distinctive that visitors could easily find it. But it is not practical as a combination visitor center and history museum, which is what the city said it planned to do. The rooms are too small and the second floor is not handicap accessible. It would cost a lot more of taxpayer money to make it usable for visitors. Maybe someone at city hall finally figured that out and that’s why they put it on the market.
Our committee was not asked to find a site for a welcome center. We were asked to develop a plan to start one from the ground up and operate it. We did that. The plan we created could be applied to any building.
But people talk. And when we talked informally, members of the committee kept looking at the Red Cedar Inn, sitting at the east entrance to the city on Historic Route 66, asking why in the world didn’t the city buy the Red Cedar for a visitor center. The building could handily accommodate a welcome center and a history museum with room to spare. It is already handicap accessible. It’s ready to move in.
But more than that, the Red Cedar is a Route 66 icon. It is known all over the country. Visitors from Europe still stop there and try to open the front door. They wander into some of the shops in downtown to ask why it is not open.
If we’re serious about attracting visitors to Pacific and providing them with a good visual experience while they’re here, we need to look at the assets that are already here, the bluffs, the view from the top of the bluff at Blackburn Park, the Meramec River, the Civil War markers, the train watching center and the historic Red Cedar Inn, inside and out.
In Carthage, the Boots Motel also is under renovation and opened with one wing completely restored. Two sisters bought that motel and are trying to recreate the travel experience that motorists on Route 66 had 50 years ago. They think it will take up to five years to get the motel to its original condition, but they’re already attracting foreign visitors. Recently, they hosted two motorcycle groups from Tahiti.
“And we’ve had visitors from nearly every European country,” one of the sisters was quoted as saying.
While he was writing this article, reporter Tom Uhlenbrock, who writes travel stories about Missouri, stopped in Cuba, Lebanon and Springfield, where Route 66 was named in 1926, and Carthage. He would have stopped in Pacific and written about our city, I’m sure, if only he had seen a welcome sign on the Red Cedar Inn.
If we, as a city, wish not to keep being bypassed, we need to combine our assets and put out a welcome sign.
Pauline Masson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-805-9800.