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

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

Route 66
© Paul Souders/WorldFoto, 6836 16th Ave NE, Sea/Corbis

"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."

Devil's Rope Museum: McLean, Texas

It is a relatively unknown fact that barbed wire contributed greatly to the settling of the American West. Originally invented in 1868 as a means of preventing cattle from eating crops, barbed wire was given its modern form by Joseph Glidden’s improvements in 1874. Prior to this, farmers often used Osage Orange, a small thorny tree found in Texas, as a naturally growing barrier.  

Nicknamed “Devil’s Rope” by Native Americans, the wire proved highly effective on cattle, but also destructive against an entire ecosystem. One notable example: By impeding the American buffalo’s access to grazing land and water, it became a major factor in the near-extinction of the once-prominent creature.

This small museum in the Texas panhandle details the history of barbed wire. Located in a former bra factory, the museum has thousands of different types of barbed wire on display, plus demos on how to make your own “devil’s rope.” For art lovers, sculptures made entirely of barbed wire are featured both inside and outside the museum. 

J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum: Claremore, Oklahoma

The largest private gun collection in the world is located in Claremore, Oklahoma, across the street from the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. A prominent local hotel owner, J.M. Davis leased his entire collection to the state of Oklahoma in 1965 for $1 a year. The museum opened in 1969 and Mr. Davis is still there, entombed in a crypt in 1973 on museum grounds so that he could stay with his guns forever. 

While the guns are the highlight (notables include the world’s smallest manufactured automatic pistol and a Chinese cannon gun from the 14th century), the museum features other items as well. These include German beer steins, World War I posters and a rather creepy set of “used nooses.”   

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: Springfield, Illinois

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

From his stove top hat to his childhood log cabin, the legend of Abraham Lincoln is well-known. But the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in the capital city of Illinois offers a different take on Honest Abe—a holographic take.

The centerpiece of the museum is their “Ghosts of the Library” show, complete with special effects, live actors and, yes, a hologram of Abraham Lincoln. It is grandiose, slightly bizarre and totally cool. Other Lincoln-related artifacts on display at the museum includes the former president's deathbed, the silver spoon Lincoln used at his last supper and Lincoln's notes from the third of his 1858 debates against Stephen A. Douglas.

Jesse James Wax Museum: Stanton, Missouri

Wax figures of notorious outlaw Jesse James, famously shot by his supposed ally Robert Ford in 1882, would have been enough to make this museum on Missouri’s stretch of Route 66 a worthwhile stop. But the museum also presents an outlandish but fascinating theory: What if Jesse James didn’t die that day? What if his shooting was just an elaborate ruse? What if James lived to 1951 and died at age 104?

In 1948, a Texas man named J. Frank Dalton claimed that he was, in fact, Jesse James. After years of hiding the secret, Dalton said, he had finally decided to reveal his "true" identity to the world before his death. There were skeptics aplenty, but businessman Rudy Turilli believed and made it his life’s work to prove that J. Frank Dalton was Jesse James.

Today, the Turilli family still owns and runs the museum, along with the nearby Meramec Caverns where the James/Dalton gang supposedly hid out. 

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Driving Route 66 can feel like being transported via time machine into 1950s America—the days of pink Cadillacs, soda jerks and the threat of nuclear annihilation.  

Located less than a mile off the historic road, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History charts United States advancements in nuclear science. Besides exhibits on the Manhattan Project and Atomic Pinup Girls, the museum is home to some of the most remarkable artifacts of the atomic age. The B-29 Superfortress, the first type of plane to drop a nuclear bomb, is regarded as the “aircraft that won World War II.” There are only 17 still in existence, including the one stationed behind the museum, although the museum's plane never actually saw combat. The collection also includes two hydrogen bomb casings from the infamous Palomares incident, when American H-bombs were accidentally dropped (but not detonated) on Spain in 1966.

Museum of Osteology: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Despite its rather ordinary name, this facility on the outskirts of Oklahoma City is anything but. Jay Villemarette’s fascination with bones began as a kid, when he found a dog skull in his backyard. His collection grew, and soon he started a small skull-and-skeleton-sales business out of his house.

One thing that always proved difficult for Villamarette was getting the bones clean. He tried boiling, burning and bleaching, but all of these methods were potentially dangerous, expensive and didn’t work all that well. One day while out collecting, he noticed a specimen being eaten away by dermestid beetles, or skin beetles. Indiginous to North America, the beetles aid the natural decomposition process in the wild. Villamarette had found his solution to his bone-cleaning problem.

Today, Villamarette and his retail company, Skulls Unlimited, employ tanks of dermestid beetles to help clean the excess meat off specimens. One of these tanks, plus nearly 1,000 bone and skeleton specimens, are on display at the Museum of Osteology—“America’s only skeleton museum”—located next door to the processing plant of Skulls Unlimited.  

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