Birth of Route 66 – April 30, 1926

Friday, April 30, 1926, was the red-letter day — the day that the impasse over Route 60 began to be resolved, and Route 66 born. The meeting of Cyrus Avery, John Marshall Page, B. H. Piepmeier, and perhaps Woodruff, must have been hastily called, because on Saturday, April 17, Avery wrote to Piepmeier and expressed in very general, vague terms the hope of seeing Piepmeier sometime soon. “Am hoping to make a trip over that section sometime in the near future and hope to have the pleasure of seeing you (http://dc.library.okstate.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/Avery/id/825/rec/108).” Thus, less than two weeks before the meeting that many historians of Route 66 have designated as its birth date, Avery, one of the principal causes and principal resolvers of the highway numbering imbroglio, gave no definite indication that such a meeting would be held to address yet again this longstanding and contentious route numbering issue. The situation had been up the air for six months, and it was holding up the entire federal highway numbering initiative.

Friday, April 30, 1926, was a very busy day in Springfield, Missouri. Several thousand Rotarians were in town to attend the convention of the Fifteenth District, which included the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In 1926, Rotary International was twenty-one years old, with a total membership of approximately 20,000 worldwide. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotary_International). Because it was estimated that as many as 3,000 Rotarians were in Springfield for this conference, that means approximately 15% of the entire Rotary membership was in Springfield at the end of April 1926. Both Cyrus Avery and John Marshall Page were Rotarians (The Tulsa Gasser of the Rotary Club of Tulsa, Oklahoma 11 (35) (January 1, 1927): cover), but evidently Woodruff was not. The convention officially began on Thursday morning and concluded on Friday evening.

Late Thursday afternoon, a large parade of Rotarians and others — “one of the largest and most spectacular parades ever seen by the Springfield public” — marched down Walnut Street and around the downtown area (Springfield Leader, Thursday, April 29, 1926, pp. 1, 11). When the conference sessions concluded at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, “the rest of the night will be devoted to dancing on the square, where traffic has been barred by an action of the city council; parades, band concerts and street stunts (Springfield Leader, Thursday, April 29, 1926, 11).” Friday evening promised to be equally raucous, if not more so.

 

Springfield, Missouri in 1926

Looking east on St. Louis Street in September 1927. The Woodruff Building is on the left, and the Colonial Hotel is on the right. Photo courtesy of the History Museum on the Square.

 

It must have been a crowded, noisy, festive street scene, especially in the late afternoon and early evening.

“Stunts, impromptu parades, gay parades of a dozen hilarious visitors, singing and shouting as they made their way along brilliantly lighted streets, in fact every conceivable festivity which might add to the joyous nature of a great celebration, featured the first evening of the fifteenth district Rotary convention last night . . . . Both the square and St. Louis street, as far east as the mosque, had been illuminated until the light was equal to that of day, and until a late hour last night were crowded with persons thoroughly imbued with the spirit of festivity” (Springfield Republican, Friday, April 30, 1926, p. 1).

The Friday conference program ran from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Shrine Mosque, followed on Friday evening with the Governor’s Banquet at 6:30 p.m., followed by dancing at 9:30 p.m. (Springfield Leader, Thursday, April 29, 1926, p. 23).

The Shrine Mosque on St. Louis Street — a few blocks east of downtown, the Woodruff Building, and the Colonial Hotel, and almost directly across the street from the Kentwood Arms Hotel, which was still under construction, much to Woodruff’s chagrin — was the main conference venue, but the Colonial Hotel was the conference headquarters, and nearly all the other hotels were located downtown or up north on Commercial Street. Probably every hotel in and near Springfield was full.

Various reports indicate that this meeting was held either in Woodruff’s offices in the Woodruff Building or in some sort of meeting room, restaurant, coffee shop, bar, or room in the Colonial Hotel across the street. We do not know when the meeting began, nor how long it lasted. It probably started in the early afternoon at the earliest, because Piepmeier had driven down from Jefferson City in the morning, then made some other highway announcements in the early afternoon. It is possible that the meeting changed locations as it progressed. A few historians suggest that the meeting was held in the Greene County Courthouse. Antonson (2012), for example, asserts that “three fatigued and frustrated men” met on the steps of the Greene County Courthouse on April 30, 1926.

Nevertheless, the meeting almost certainly occurred in the Colonial Hotel, at least at the time the telegram was sent to DC, because, as John Sellars, Director of the History Museum on the Square in Springfield, and others have noted, the famous telegram was sent from the Postal Telegraph office in the Colonial Hotel, not from the nearby, newer, competing Western Union office on St. Louis Street just west of the front entrance of the Woodruff Building (oral history interview with John Sellars on March 11, 2015). Skip Curtis, a local Springfield historian of Route 66, agreed that the telegram probably was sent from the Colonial Hotel, not from the Woodruff Building across the street (Springfield Business Journal, September 17-23, 2001: 12). With thousands of Rotarians in town at that time, it would not make sense for someone trying to send an urgent telegram to Washington, DC, at 4:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon to even attempt crossing the street, full of pedestrians (including roving bands of raucous Rotarians), cars, trucks, and streetcars, when there were telegraph offices on both sides of the street, virtually directly across from each other.

 

St. Louis Street, Springfield, Missouri. 1927.

Springfield square, looking northeast, on Thursday, April 29, 1926, as the parade celebrating the Rotary convention wends its way through the downtown area. Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square.

 

When the famous meeting of Avery, Piepmeier, Page, and perhaps Woodruff occurred on April 30, 1926, when Route 66 began to be born, it was Charles Sansone, not Woodruff or John Landers, who was operating the Colonial Hotel. If the group meeting in the hotel had anything to eat that afternoon, it may have been prepared by the maternal grandfather of Elaine Graham Estes, the only daughter of the couple who, in 1932, would open Graham’s Rib Station, a famous Black-owned restaurant on Chestnut Street a few blocks north of the Shrine Mosque (oral history interview with Elaine Graham Estes, November 21, 2014 at approximately the 17:00 minute mark).

Sansone, who also was a Rotarian, had undertaken a thirty-year lease on the operation of the hotel property from Landers (Springfield Leader, Sunday, January 3, 1926, p. 1). “The Colonial, managed by Charles Sansone, Rotarian, will be the conference hotel during the Fifteenth District Rotary conference today and tomorrow, and will be the main gathering place for visitors aside from the mosque (Springfield Leader, Thursday, April 29, 1926, p. 6B).” Undoubtedly, Rotarians were walking in convivial throngs along St. Louis Street throughout the convention, including Friday afternoon, when someone sent the memorable telegram to Washington, DC.

 

Telegram

The famous telegram sent by Avery and Piepmeier from Springfield on April 30, 1926 to Thomas McDonald in Washington, DC. Image in the public domain.

 

Woodruff may have been even more hyperactive than usual on this particular day, because of the huge convention of Rotarians downtown, the big push to complete construction of the Kentwood Arms (which was well behind schedule — an announcement in late January had stated that the hotel would be open by late April (Springfield Republican, Saturday, January 23, 1926, p. 4)), and the meeting with Avery, Piepmeier, and Page. Woodruff and Lydia were hosting a dinner and dance party that evening at their home east of Springfield, because Jessamine, Woodruff’s older daughter, her husband Carl, and their two children, Mary Catherine and Carl, had been visiting from Duluth for most of April (Springfield Republican, Saturday, April 3, 1926, p. 3, and Springfield Leader, Friday, April 23, 1926, p. 5).

Piepmeier had come to Springfield on this date to conduct other business and make other announcements as well. For example, his announcement that Glenstone Avenue would become part of Missouri Highway 3 was reported in the local newspapers.

“Glenstone avenue, formerly Glenstone road until it was included recently with the city limits, has been formally designated as the route for state highway No. 3 through the city, according to B. H. Piepmeier, chief engineer for the state highway commission, who was in the city this afternoon . . . . It is stated that the highway department will pave No. 3, which is one of the primary state highways, and has been designated as a United States highway also at points in the city as the law will permit. (Springfield Leader, April 30, 1926, p. 1A)

The rules regarding the paving of state highways within city limits were conditional. If houses within the city limits were within two hundred feet of each other, the city must do the paving. “If the residences are further apart than 200 feet the state will pave a primary road within a municipality . . . . Mr. Piepmeier was in the city today to confer with representatives of the Oklahoma highway department in regard to connecting the Missouri highways which have been designated United States roads with extensions of the name [sic] national highways through Oklahoma (Springfield Leader, April 30, 1926, p. 1A).” The Springfield Republican of May 1, 1926, also reported that Piepmeier said that he was in town primarily to confer with representatives from Oklahoma highways regarding the federal numbering system. There was no mention of the telegram or the resolved preference for the number 66 in these contemporary newspaper reports of Piepmeier’s visit.

Piepmeier almost certainly returned to Jefferson City on Friday evening, because he was scheduled to attend another good roads meeting in Macon, Missouri, on Saturday (Krim 1991). Macon is located in north-central Missouri well north of Jefferson City and Columbia. It is possible that Piepmeier may have left town on Friday afternoon before the famous telegram was sent. Avery and Page probably stayed over in Springfield until Saturday, assuming the two men from Oklahoma were traveling together.

Who exactly suggested the number 66 at this meeting remains a point of historical conjecture. Although Avery and Piepmeier “signed” the telegram, John Page from Oklahoma may have first noted that the number 66 was still available and might work well for this route. Weingroff, Kelly, and Powell all agree on this point. “Oklahoma’s Chief Highway Engineer, John M. Page, noticed that the number ‘66’ had not been assigned to any route (Weingroff 2015).” “John Page, the Chief Engineer of Oklahoma was at that meeting and noticed that the catchy sounding ‘66’ was still unused (Powell 2014, 110).” According to Kelly (2015), it was Avery who first suggested that other available numbers be examined. “After some discussion, Avery led the conversation around to the possibility of adopting one of the numbers that had not yet been considered for the highway map. He asked Page to see what two-digit numbers were left over. There weren’t many . . . . Out of the twenty-four unused single- and double-digit numbers, Page suggested that 66 might work (Kelly 2015, 23).” It should be noted that Avery, who in 1925 had designed a sample highway shield design for the proposed highway, had inserted the number 66 into the shield for this sample, so the number 66 was in the air.

The April 30, 1926 telegram from Springfield, Missouri, to Washington, DC, was the first recorded proposal of the number 66 for this particular route. “Thus, Springfield, MO, the town from which Avery and Piepmeier sent the first recorded reference to the road ‘Sixty-Six’, becomes the birthplace of Route 66! (Powell 2014, 11)”

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This excerpt is from the forthcoming book, John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, in the Ozarks: An Encyclopedic Biography (2016, Pie Supper Press) by Thomas A. Peters, Dean of Library Services at Missouri State University. Among Woodruff’s many accomplishments, he was a Good Roads enthusiast and served two terms as the first president of the U.S. 66 Highway Association.