America’s Road Trip: Route 66’s Most Fascinating Museums

Take a drive on Route 66 and encounter the wonders of the road

(© Paul Souders/WorldFoto, 6836 16th Ave NE, Sea/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

"Sixty-six is the mother road, the road of flight,” wrote John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel Grapes of Wrath.

When Route 66 was first established in 1926 as one of the first official US highways, it was nearly 2,500 miles of road that connected Chicago to Los Angeles. Never before had a route captured America’s sense of freedom, adventure and opportunity quite like 66 did. Given several nicknames—including “The Main Street of America,” and “The Will Rogers Highway”—Route 66 reigned supreme for about a quarter of a century, from the mid-1930s, when it was a migration route, until the late 1950s, when it became a major highway for postwar vacationers.

With the road cutting through big cities and small towns alike, Route 66 helped small businesses thrive. Diners, motels, trading posts, gas stations, natural wonders and roadside attractions all became part of the uniquely American experience the road provided.

But the Federal Highway Act of 1956 proved to be the beginning of the end of Route 66’s heyday. In response to the growing car culture of America, the law allocated money for newer, faster, better roads—like Interstate 40. These roads allowed for the near-total circumvention of Route 66. As the Mother Road saw less traffic, the small businesses alongside it died out. On June 27, 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned, meaning the road was no longer part of the US highway system.

Today, though, Route 66 has seen a bit of revival, thanks to recognition of its history and cultural value. The National Parks Service offers grants for preservation of the road. Travelers who want to experience a taste of mid-century Americana are hitting the road again. Even foreign tourists are making the trip to get their kicks on Route 66. While certainly not the fastest or easiest way to drive from Chicago to Los Angles (or vice versa), it is the most scenic, and still ripe for discovery. 

So, buckle up—summer is road trip season and there is no better road to take than the one that so captivated the American imagination. Alongside the diners and natural wonders, Route 66 is a haven for off-the-wall collections and eclectic museums. Here are seven of the most fascinating:

The Vacuum Cleaner Museum: St. James, Missouri

(Matt Blitz)

“This museum really ‘sucks’ you in,” chuckles Tom Gasko, curator of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James, Missouri. Besides providing a little humor, Gasko looks after an impressive collection of vacuum cleaners, with machines that date back over 100 years. Many still work, as he often likes to demonstrate to visitors.

Located under the Tacony Manufacturing plant, the museum’s more notable artifacts include the vacuum used on Air Force One during George W. Bush’s administration. “When we got it, it smelled like piña colada,” says Gasko. Besides a machine suggestive of Air Force One's passengers' taste for tropical drinks, there are also several other “celebrity” vacuums at the museum. For example, the collections also include vacuums that appeared with Stan Kann, noted vacuum cleaner collector, on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus