Along Route 66, Drivers Passed Through, Not By

By Warren Brown
Sunday, January 13, 2008

GALENA, Kan.

An occasional tornado or winter storm roars through Galena. But not much else moves in this town of 3,200 souls at the eastern edge of Kansas.

Garry and Sherry Collins will tell you that things have not always been this way.

"Nope," said Garry, chatting with me at the 4 Women on the Route Snack Shack, a gas station turned eatery and gift shop. "We used to have a lot of activity around here."

He directed my attention to a squat white building across Main Street, a forlorn edifice that gave no evidence of its former glory. "That used to be the Dairy Dream," said Garry. "It used to be the place where, when we were teenagers, we'd get in our cars and cruise up and down the street and stop there and hang out. It was the place."

"Sure was," said Sherry, Garry's wife of 43 years. "That's where we met."

"Yep," said Garry, smiling at his wife. "The Dairy Dream -- that was the place."

"You mean Dairy Queen?" I asked.

"No," Garry and Sherry corrected me in unison. "It was the Dairy Dream," Garry said. "It came before the Dairy Queen," said Sherry.

It also came before the birth of the modern interstate highway system, with its high-speed, multi-lane highways that relegated towns such as Galena to antique status.

It was when roads were used to communicate, rather than to isolate, which is what superhighways tend to do, carrying motorists through America but rarely allowing them to stop long enough to see what's in it.

The Dairy Dream era was the time of U.S. Route 66, commissioned in 1926 and decommissioned in 1985, mostly left to decrepitude in Galena and other places where it was the local Main Street.

I joined a group of Italian and German journalists on a cross-country road trip ostensibly to test-drive several Mercedes-Benz cars, including the fuel-sipping Smart Fortwo micro-car. But the journey quickly turned into something else, a discovery of a forgotten America -- a tutorial on what happens to communities once fed by motorized arteries that have been bypassed and left to atrophy.

The simple answer is that they shrivel and die. Empirically, judging by the number of decayed and decaying buildings along Main Streets in Galena, Amboy, Calif., Shamrock, Tex., and other small towns once served by Route 66, that certainly seems to be the case.

But the truth is complex.

Other cities, such as Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles -- all once intimately connected by the 2,500-mile, east-west stretch of Route 66 -- have done quite well without that old, dangerous highway with its two opposing lanes. What's the difference?

It is money -- specifically, places that have the ability to generate the most money.

Viewed from that perspective, the fate of Route 66 and all of the little towns it served was doomed at the road's conception.

Route 66 was envisioned as a business proposition, a quicker way to move people back and forth between major business centers -- Chicago on its eastern end and Los Angeles at its western terminus. In those days, travel by automobile was an adventure frequently fraught with discomfort and inconvenience. Cars and trucks were not as reliable as today's models. People making the cross-country run had to stop for repairs, often staying overnight or an extra day or so until their vehicles were fixed. They often stopped in Galena and similar towns, helping to enrich those places.

Modern interstates sped up the cross-country commute between the nation's bigger and richer cities, effectively bypassing less affluent, formerly industrial towns such as Galena, which once relied on lead mining to support its fiscal health. The big cities prospered. Many little towns suffered.

"It happened very fast," said a saleswoman in the gift shop at the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Okla. "One day, there was traffic coming though town on 66. The next day, there was nothing. Everybody was on Interstate 40." Thus, many small businesses -- mom-and-pop hotels and restaurants, retail stores and other businesses relying on Route 66 traffic -- "soon went out of business," the saleswoman said.

And so it went all along the highway that John Steinbeck called "The Mother Road" in "The Grapes of Wrath." Businesses died. Small towns lost jobs and people. But some, like Garry and Sherry, stayed.

"This is home," said Garry. "I was born here. It's changed a lot. But it's still home."


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