Category Archives: History

Headed for the light

Ron and I found a welcome light illuminating the darkness this evening on Route 66 here in Tucumcari.

For several weeks, we’d been seeing signs of life at the long-shuttered Apache Motel. Ron talked to the new owner today, and this evening, she sent him a photo showing the lightbulbs around the perimeter of the motel’s iconic neon sign burning brightly.

We immediately grabbed our cameras and headed out.

Apache Motel sign with lights on around edge
The Apache’s new owner got some of the sign to light again.

The Apache was open when we took our first Route 66 trip in 2001. Some of the paint was peeling from the sign, but the neon was still burning, and chasing lights raced dramatically around the edge, calling attention to the motel for at least half a mile in either direction. At the time, I hadn’t yet learned to leave the shutter open long enough to catch all the lights as they flashed on and off, but you can see how vibrant the neon was:

Apache Motel sign in 2001 with neon lit
The Apache sign on Aug. 4, 2001.

Not long after that, the sign went dark, and the motel sat empty until 2006, when new owners bought it and restored it to its mid-century glory. I stayed there during a November 2006 road trip, which I blogged about at the time.

The motel closed almost as quickly as it reopened, and it’s been quietly decaying ever since — a heartbreaking sight, given the work that went into restoring it.

The timing of the coronavirus pandemic — arriving in the United States just on the cusp of tourist season — couldn’t be worse for my beloved Route 66. But looking up at the Apache sign this evening, I was reminded of one of the things I love most about this old road: Its seemingly endless capacity for renewal.

Just ask the Over the Hill Gang in Arcadia, Oklahoma; the Illinois Route 66 Association’s Historic Preservation Committee; the owners of the “Murder Bordello” in Galena, Kansas; Dawn Welch, whose Rock Cafe literally rose from the ashes after a 2008 fire that gutted its interior and collapsed its roof; or Ned Leuchtner, who reconstructed Cool Springs Camp from a pair of stone pillars.

The Mother Road and her children may see some casualties in the coming years. But as Ma Joad said: “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever … ’cause we’re the people.”


Action alert: Save the Cactus Motel!

I got word this weekend that O’Reilly Auto Parts — which Route 66 enthusiasts will remember as the company that destroyed the historic Lewis Motel in Vinita, Oklahoma, in 2006 — is about to launch another attack on the Mother Road.

O’Reilly’s latest assault on Route 66 history comes with a side dish of disregard for Black history, as the company is poised to purchase and, presumably, demolish the historic Cactus Motel here in Tucumcari, New Mexico, so it can replace it with another of its nondescript stores.

The Cactus Motel is significant not just as part of Tucumcari’s rich Route 66 history, but also as one of the rare properties listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, Victor Green’s famous guide to help Black families travel safely across the United States during the era of segregation. Tucumcari has long been known for its plethora of motels along Route 66, but during the Jim Crow era, only three of them accepted Black guests — and of the three, the Cactus is one of the only two still standing. (La Plaza Court is the other.)

If you care about historic preservation, here are a few ways you can help encourage O’Reilly to put the brakes on this destructive project before it’s too late:

1. Call O’Reilly’s store-construction department at (417) 862-2674, ext. 1277, or its customer-service department at (800) 755-6759 and politely explain that you will be deeply disappointed if the company tears down the Cactus Motel.

2. Write a short, polite letter to O’Reilly’s corporate headquarters. The address is:

O’Reilly Auto Parts
223 S. Patterson Ave.
Springfield, MO 65802-2298

3. Email a copy of your letter to

In your letter, consider including some or all of the following talking points:

  • The Cactus Motel is an irreplaceable part of Route 66 history.
  • The Cactus Motel was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book.
  • The Cactus Motel is an attractive structure with several architectural flourishes of the sort that have helped other long-shuttered motels find new life as boutique hotels, event centers, and business incubators.
  • Many of O’Reilly’s customers are classic-car enthusiasts who love Route 66 and would be unhappy to learn the company had destroyed another historic property on their favorite road.
  • Several other commercial properties are for sale on Tucumcari Boulevard that appear equally or better suited to O’Reilly’s purposes, so destroying the Cactus Motel seems unnecessary.

4. Click here to send a copy of your letter to Tucumcari’s local paper, the Quay County Sun.

5. Share your feelings — and this action alert — on social media. If you’re on Twitter, please tweet to @oreillyauto, asking them to #savethecactusmotel on #Route66 and letting them know you won’t be doing any more business with them if they tear down another historic motel.

Please take a few minutes to help save a piece of American history.


Labor of love

Ron and I spent our Labor Day weekend working on a preservation project at the beautiful and historic Boots Motel on Route 66 in Carthage, Mo.

Here are some before, during and after photos from our project:

A storm and some equipment issues kept us from getting anything done Saturday.
We got the equipment issues sorted out and began stripping the neon off the sign by mid-morning Sunday. Ron Hart, who manages the motel, also removed a large metal panel from one side. He didn’t find the wiring access he wanted, but we got an idea of how the sign looked when it said “BOOTS COURT.”
Removing the panel made that side of the sign much faster and easier to paint.
Prep work took most of yesterday. I started today by hitting the channel letters on the south side of the sign with a coat of white paint.
Fresh paint really made the letters pop.
Next came a coat of black on the background.
The two Rons (Hart, pictured, and Warnick, helping from the ground) raised the “MOTEL” panel into place. I was pretty excited to see how it looked.
Next came the north side of the sign. Here it is with the black background filled in. Ron Hart did all the parts I was either too short or too scared to reach.
With the background all filled in, I painted the letters on the north side of the sign.
Love the contrast between the old paint (“BOOTS”) and the new (“MOTEL”).
Just a little more….
Finished! Ron Hart is going to take care of touchups and paint the green bars later, as it was getting late and we were all too hot and tired to continue.
Here’s the south side of the sign.

Hope your weekend was as satisfying as mine.



Scenes from the road

This is the first time in a month that I’ve been in town for an entire weekend, so I’m finally getting caught up on some things around the house — like Photoshopping some of the pictures I shot on the road.

While I was in Illinois for a visit with family and old friends a couple of weeks ago, my parents and I drove down to the area around McClure, Ill., to find the property where my late grandmother grew up.

The homestead where Grandma and her siblings grew up was near Horse Creek. See the bridge in the background? It didn’t exist back then, so people had to ford the creek at the point where the road in the foreground runs out.

The property is adjacent to the Shawnee National Forest. Imagine having such a magnificent forest as your playground. I’m not sure how much time Grandma got to spend tromping around in the woods after Great-Grandpa died — Grandma wound up taking care of her nine siblings more or less on her own while her mom worked to put food on the table — but I’m sure in the early years, she must have spent at least a little time under those trees.

Here is the road leading from the creek back to the old homestead.

I love the way the light filters through the trees.

The forest is heavily populated with little ferns.

Tiny minnows were swimming in a cold, shallow stream.

I waded in the stream for a minute or two before Mom noticed tadpoles darting under the rocks. We were afraid I might squish one of them, so I got out of the water and put my shoes back on.

Mom took this picture. She thought that hole near the roots of a tree looked like a gnome house. We didn’t stick our fingers in there to find out who lived there….

On the way out of Oklahoma, I stopped for a quick photo op with Bobby McGee at Afton Station.

This pretty little leopard moth was resting on a gas pump in Joplin. I think it looks like a cross between a butterfly and a Dalmatian.

Ron and I spent last weekend in New Mexico.

Some rugrats from Arkansas signed Bobby McGee. The little bitty guy’s name is Otis. Really. Isn’t that cute?

We sat outside the Blue Swallow on Sunday night and watched Tucumcari’s fireworks display with Bill and Terri (above), who own the motel. Bill and Terri are great hosts. If you’re ever in Tucumcari, you must spend an evening at their motel.

On the way back, we encountered another art car outside the Midpoint Cafe on Route 66 in Adrian, Texas. It isn’t exactly like Bob’s van, but it was close enough to make me sort of suck in my breath a little bit as we pulled up.

On the way home, we took a short detour to Palo Duro Canyon, south of Amarillo, to see the rock formations. Palo Duro is a really nice CCC park. (Note to President Obama: The stimulus package is nice, but I’m still waiting for you to bring back WPA and CCC.) We didn’t have time to do much more than drive through it, but we’ll definitely go back when we have time to hike on the trails and explore a little more.

As we were coming through western Oklahoma, we encountered an old friend. This Muffler Man used to stand in front of a car dealership in Clinton. The dealership changed hands, and the Indian vanished. We stopped at an Indian art shop just off I-40 somewhere outside of Clinton on Monday evening and discovered a familiar-looking character out front. The girl working the cash register confirmed that this was, indeed, the Indian from Howe Motors.

Hope you’ve been enjoying your summer weekends as much as I have.

— Emily

Folk Tuesday: Kent State

Forty years ago. I’m still trying to process that.

If you’re interested in the history of the Vietnam protests (and you should be, regardless of your position on the issue, because it’s much easier to learn vicariously than it is to repeat the mistakes of the past), I highly recommend the book Who Spoke Up? Fascinating stuff. I think it’s out of print, but you could probably rustle up a copy online.


Action alert — your help is needed!

As most readers know, Route 66 preservation is one of my greatest passions. I’ve been involved in everything from hands-on historic preservation projects to successful letter-writing campaigns to save structures all along the Mother Road. This week, I became aware of a pressing preservation issue right in my backyard, and I really need your help to protect a beautiful, historic bridge from demolition. Below is the action alert I am sharing with anyone who cares about historic preservation:

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is considering demolition of one of Catoosa’s historic “twin bridges” that carry Route 66 traffic across Bird Creek. The older of the two steel-truss bridges was built in 1936 to accommodate vehicles weighing up to 15 tons. Modern vehicles, which are much heavier, have taken their toll on the 74-year-old structure, which has deteriorated so badly that it will have to be closed to traffic in the near future.

ODOT is seeking public comment as it weighs several options for the bridge’s future.

From an aesthetic and safety standpoint, the best option seems to be a compromise that would involve building a new, flat bridge, then placing the old steel trusses – with some minor changes to meet modern height and width requirements – on top for aesthetic purposes. This option would preserve the bridge’s visual impact while meeting modern safety requirements. This option is similar to the method used a few years ago to preserve the Captain Creek Bridge on Route 66 near Wellston.

To voice your support for this compromise option, please go to:

(The site may take a few minutes to load, but this beautiful old bridge is well worth the effort.)

In your comments, be sure to include the following talking points:

1. The bridge is very popular with Route 66 tourists and photographers.

2. Demolition of the bridge would cause irreparable harm to Route 66.

3. The best solutions to the problem would be to either keep the bridge in place and bypass it with a new structure or replace it with a new structure that uses the old trusses as decorative elements to preserve the look of the “twin bridges” while resolving the safety issues.

Thanks in advance for helping with this project. By the end of the day, I would like for ODOT to receive at least 250 messages of support for the bridge from Route 66 enthusiasts around the world. Please lend your voice to this cause. I will try to get some good photos of the bridge this weekend.


How cool is this?


I got a nice surprise in the mail the other day: My friend Mike sent me this gorgeous linen postcard showing how my school looked in 1946. It looks basically the same now, except the trees are a lot taller and more plentiful, and the windows look slightly different because of an update that was done a few years ago to improve energy efficiency.

Our campus, which is just off Route 66, is really beautiful. I love our main building’s great Art Deco lines. (Zaphod didn’t know it at the time, but when he offered me the job last year, it was the tour of the campus that helped clinch my decision. It’s hard to walk through a 1938 building and say, “No, I don’t want to work here.” As I told Zaphod later: “You had me at Deco.”)


History lesson

I don’t normally discuss politics on my blog, but an acquaintance has picked up an unfortunate habit of copying me in on his mass distribution list for snotty diatribes denigrating Mexican immigrants, and his most recent offering touched on one of my pet peeves.

Without getting into a long, complicated, and potentially divisive discussion about immigration laws, I want to point out a historical fact that seems to escape most of the anti-immigration crowd:

English is not this country’s native language.

Nothing irritates me any faster than to hear somebody start beating the “welcome to America — now speak English” drum.

English is no more native to this country than Spanish — and both languages found their way to North America through European immigrants who certainly didn’t have green cards.

Anybody who’s worried about immigrants from some other country coming in and mucking up the status quo would do well to remember that if such a thing happened, it certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can explain to me why it was OK for Europeans to come in with guns and smallpox and take over an entire continent, brutalizing its inhabitants, stealing their land, and forcing them to speak a language that was not their own, but it’s not OK for Mexican immigrants to come to the United States with empty hands and ask for nothing more than a job — and perhaps a little patience with the fact that they are speaking a language that was imposed on their country by one group of European settlers, while we are speaking a language that was imposed on our country by a different group of European settlers.

Unless you are a full-blooded American Indian, at least some of your ancestors were immigrants who did NOT speak the native language when they came to this country. 

Welcome to America. Now speak Cherokee.


Looking back

One of my duties this week at RedFork Main Street involves looking up historic photographs of our project area. If you’re interested in Route 66, southwest Tulsa, old cars, or historic buildings, you might want to check out ODOT’s great collection of Route 66 photographs — which includes several of downtown Red Fork — or the Beryl Ford Collection of Tulsa photographs through the years. Some of the photos are really amazing.

Next week, I’m hoping to grab a camera and some printouts of the old images and put together a then-and-now slideshow to post on our Web site.

I still can’t believe they’re paying me for this. Life is good….