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A New Project Tells the Stories of the Women of Route 66

An oral history project with the National Park Service follows women on the iconic highway

A section of the Historic Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona. (Vidor, via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Perhaps no single road is more significant to modern American folklore than the fabled Route 66. Once stretching almost all the way across the country, the highway that John Steinbeck called “the Mother Road” has been memorialized in songs and stories over the decades. But while many of these stories center on the experience of the travelers and road trippers who rode down the highway, Route 66 was central to the lives of many people along its path. Now, an oral history project sponsored by the National Park Service is seeking to tell the stories of the women who lived and worked along the famous highway.

Titled “The Women on the Mother Road,” the project is supported by the National Park Service and Cinefemme, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women filmmakers and documentarians. Founded by filmmaker Katrina Parks, the oral history project seeks to gather the stories of the females who lived and worked along Route 66, just like the many male travelers whose stories have dominated the narratives set along the highway.

"We saw there was this great narrative about Route 66 out there that tended to be focused on the traveler's experience," Kaisa Barthuli, project manager for the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program tells Susan Montoya Bryan for the Associated Press. "We realized that Route 66, as a symbol of America, had the potential to tell so many deeper stories. It's about pulling out these lesser known stories that really help people connect and understand our history."

Route 66 was first established in 1926, and it quickly became a popular path for people moving westward. During the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s, as many Midwesterners started migrating to California, the highway drew all sorts of people, from entrepreneurs to the people they hired to run their restaurants, hotels, and stores, Bryan writes. But while many of these people were men, they were far from alone.

"If it weren't for us women, there wouldn't be no 66," Virginia Tellez Wayne, who once worked at several hotels along the highway, tells Bryan. "We were into everything."

During World War II, Tellez Wayne worked at a hotel called the Harvey House, El Navajo along the highway near Gallup, New Mexico to support her 13 siblings after their miner father was injured on the job. One of entrepreneur Fred Harvey’s many establishments along Route 66, Tellez Wayne was one of many “Harvey Girls” who looked after tourists, troops, and other travelers as they passed through Gallup on their journeys.

“My father thought we should stay at home. Especially me. My momma had no say...unfortunately,” Tellez Wayne tells Parks. “My dad got hurt in the mine, and he was in the hospital for maybe a couple of months. I had to take care of the kids. Somebody had to bring something home. I had to feed all those mouths.”

Parks subjects aren’t just waitresses: there are artists, like Dorothea Lange, and architects like Mary Colter, who designed many of Fred Harvey’s hotels. There are women who traveled the highways and women who settled down and made their livings in family businesses that popped up along the road. While Route 66 was officially closed in 1985 after being replaced by the Interstate Highway System, the stories and history of the famous road still play an important role in the history of 20th century America.

You can see more of the stories of the women of Route 66 here.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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