Iconic Motels and Other Stops in Missouri

We spent two and a half days traversing Missouri, and we spent two nights in exceptional restored original Route 66 motels.

We also made one other very special stop in Missouri – the Gay Parita Sinclair Station.

Wagon Wheel

Our first stop after leaving St Louis was in Cuba Missouri at the Wagon Wheel Motel. The motel is now owned by Connie Echols, who helped rescue the property by putting effort into carefully restoring it to provide nostalgic lodging for travelers exploring Route 66.

The motel was originally built in the mid 1930’s as a cabin motor court to provide lodging for travelers on Route 66. By the early 1940’s, the property had evolved to include the cabins as well as a small station and café. All the buildings were constructed of stone and solidly built.

Although the property changed hands several times along the way, it seems the owners always realized the historical value of the property. It was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2003. Connie bought the property in 2009 and has been working on restoring it since. The rooms are being restored to their quaint and cozy 1930 style, many decorated with period pictures and motifs. For our stay, we were in the Marilyn Monroe room, with a headboard adorned with her picture and a small picture of her on the wall over the toilet.

Also restored is the vintage neon sign for the motel.

The next morning, we checked out of the Wagon Wheel and stopped in Cuba at Shelly’s, a small family café, for a hearty breakfast. When traveling, we’ve found it’s great to stop at these small town diners for breakfast or lunch. They’re generally great values (delicious food at good prices), a peek into the daily life of the community, and they always treat you like friends and family.

Cuba is a quiet little community of 3300, and the city fully embraces it’s heritage of being on Route 66 with a number of murals on buildings along the old Route 66 corridor. There were also some very tasteful renovations and repurposing of old buildings, including a Phillips 66 station recently repurposed as a coffeshop (the Four Way), right on the corner of the main downtown intersection.

With full bellies, we headed out of Cuba to enjoy more of Missouri Route 66 and find our next iconic motel stop.

Boots Court

Our second night in Missouri was at the Boots Court in Carthage Missouri.

Arthur Boots built the first stage of his motel in 1939 at what he felt was the “Crossroads of America”, the intersection of US Routes 66 and 71. He built in stages, starting with a gas station and office, quickly adding the first four units behind the station as he drew customers.

His location was good, and he designed the motel to capture the height of contemporary comfort and conveniences, using an art deco, streamlined design, tiled bathrooms, carports, and advertising a “radio in Boots expanded rapidly with an additional four units.

In 1946, with a new owner, a rear annex with five additional units was opened on the back of the property.

In 2001, the property was sold to an investor who intended to demolish the building and use the property for a new development. When the plan fell through, the bank repossessed the building and sold it at auction, Two sisters, Debye Harvey and Priscilla Bledsaw successfully bid on the property with the intent of restoring it, and the restoration continues today.

It’s reported that Clark Gable stayed at the Boots Court at least twice. The rooms are spacious for the period they were built, and they are tastefully decorated with period furnishings and wall hangings. Staying true to the original advertising, there are no phones nor televisions, but there is still a radio in every room.

The original neon has been restored and makes the motel glow at night.

A Remembrance Visit – Gary’s Gay Parita

When we did Route 66 in 2012, one of our most memorable and delightful visits was with Gary Turner at his restored Gay Parita’s gas station just west of Springfield Missouri. It was later in the afternoon when we were cruising down a straight stretch of the original 66and we happened on this nicely restored station on the side of the road. I managed to stop the car and edge it over to the side of the road just past the station, and I got out to take a few pictures. Just as I was finishing up a older gentleman in work clothes walked out from the back of the station, Tootsie Roll Pop in his mouth, and waved, asking why I was leaving so soon, then inviting me in to look around and chat.

That was how I met Gary Turner. He was a bit of a crusty old gent, but he knew the station, the history of the area, and a lot of information about Route 66. He told me to bring the Mustang onto the property and pull it into the station and up to the pumps for a photo op.

From our 2012 trip…
From our 2012 trip…
From our 2012 trip…Gary in the infamous Sinclair hat!

We had a great time with Gary, and we bought a photobook of Route 66 attractions (including the Gay Parita station) from him. I watched as he carefully turned to the article about his station and he autographed the page. When we left he gave us a Route 66 Root Beer and told us: “Down the road, I want you two to stop and get some ice cream and make a couple of Route 66 Root Beer floats. And when you do, have pleasant memories of your trip down the Mother Road!”.

Gary made that 2012 trip on Route 66 memorable. It was a few years later, in early 2015, that we learned he had died in January of that year. We felt like we lost a dear friend.

Thankfully, Gary’s daughter Barb has taken over the station and now operates it, still catering to those traveling down Route 66. We stopped to meet Barb, and we shared our memories and pictures from our first visit with her Dad, our friend. Just as before, it was a great visit. Barb has done a great job of keeping up the historic property and she shares her Dad’s enthusiasm in meeting those venturing down the highway.

It was great to see the old place, especially the memorial garden that Barb built in honor of the Mom and Dad.

Rest in peace, Gary! We are so grateful we had a chance to share an afternoon with you that day in June 2012.

Missouri Route 66

When Kathy and I visited the Route 66 museum in Joliet Illinois, we told the guy behind the counter that we did the route halfway in 2012. Interestingly, he asked, “What was your favorite state?” We thought about it for just a moment and both of us answered with “Missouri”.

Missouri has about 300 miles of road that was designated as the Mother Road. As the Interstate system was developed, I44 through Missouri pretty much flowed with Route 66, which traversed the width of the state in a southwest direction from St Louis, along the northern edge of the Ozarks.

Even though there are many sections of 66 that are today’s frontage road to I44, they’re still pretty, rolling over the hills and skirting the woods that were cleared for the wide Interstate. The best parts of the route, however, are when the original route veers away from the interstate into the forested and hilly countryside of the Ozarks, over the creeks and rivers on concrete and metal bridges from the 20’s and 30’s that are still in use today.

We traversed Missouri in two days after spending a night in St Louis. We followed some of the early configuration just out of St Louis, then settling in on the route that had pretty much stabilized by the later 30’s.

Before we hit the road, we stopped for some sweet treats at a St Louis Route 66 icon, Donut Drive In. Although the Donut Drive In was a bit of a latecomer to Route 66 (it opened in 1952), it’s style and accessibility to the traffic made it a hit. Having good donuts helped!

With donuts in hand, we hit the road.

Roads of Missouri

I44 pretty much follows the old Route 66 on its southwesterly run through Missouri. The land is rolling wooded hills with lots of rivers and creeks. The newer interstate overpowers the old US highway where they run parallel, relegating the Mother Road to the status of a frontage road. Still, the original highway is a proud frontage road, a pretty ride, with mature trees close to a road that runs up and down the rolling hills a bit more than the Interstate that was designed flatter and straighter to satisfy the motorists desire for faster and more uniform speeds.

Unlike the newer interstate, the old road seems to pull the driver who’s interested into the countryside to experience the joy of the journey, the beauty of the land. Along the way are the ghosts of old billboards inviting drivers to stop and visit motels, cafes, and attractions along the way.

At spots along the way, the frontage road veers into the woods to take on a life of its own, meandering through the woods, over hills, past farm fields and into the small towns along the way that the Interstate has now passed and left behind.

It was these stretches of the old Route 66 that were so captivating when we drove through Missouri in 2012. They were a thoroughly enjoyable ride again.

Bridges of Missouri

The ride through Missouri was pretty, with lots of thick, green woods. Rivers and creeks were everywhere and where there’s water running through the country side, there are bridges to carry the road.

One of the first bridges we saw hadn’t faired too well in the last few years. The bridge originally carried Route 66 traffic over the Meramec River. It was built in 1932 and was finally closed to traffic in 2009 due to advanced degradation. The bridge, though stripped of its road deck, is still standing proudly in the Missouri Route 66 State Park. There is a group that is trying to develop a plan to save the bridge, possibly making it available to foot and bicycle traffic.

Hopefully, the project will be successful and future generations will be able to enjoy the bridge and its historical significance.

Down the road a bit, we found two even older bridges that are doing a bit better.

The 1923 Devils Elbow Bridge is a steel through truss bridge, constructed with hot rivets, is still in service on an old alignment of Route 66 over the Big Piney River. Its an interesting and picturesque bridge as the approach curves onto the bridge over the quiet river.

The bridge was rebuilt in 2013 and has been added to the register of historic places.

The Elbow Inn anchors the bridge on its eastern edge. The bar uses the  original 1929 Munger Moss Café building.

I think the bridge still survives because of a change in the road alignment that occurred in the early 1940’s. Because of the war efforts and increased activity at nearby Fort Leonard Wood, there was a large increase in military and truck traffic at Devils Elbow. The curvy road and narrow bridge often led to delays with deliveries and movement of military equipment.

To improve traffic, the government decided to straighten and expand Route 66 to four lanes across the Big Piney River. To do this, an approach to the river had to be cut through the ridge of bedrock on the east side of the river, resulting in what was, at the time, the deepest cut in the US at just over 90 feet deep. The cut can still be traversed by those who leave the interstate to experience the old Mother Road.

The cut is still impressive today, and rather pretty with the kudzu covered trees clinging to the top of the cut.

Just down the road in Waynesville Missouri is another survivor from 1923, the Roubidoux Creek bridge. This bridge is also showing its age, but it still carries a fair amount of traffic through Waynesville as Business I44 and Missouri 17. Based on some reports I’ve read, there are attempts to find ways to keep the bridge functional for historical purposes.

An interesting historical note for Route 66 through Waynesville is that it actually follows the many Indian trails that passed through the years, including the Trail of Tears. One of the reasons the area was so popular with the Indians was that Roubidoux Creek is spring fed, and the area was abundant with woods. The spring, only about two tenths of a mile from the bridge, was an interesting visit.

Roubidoux Spring is no small spring, providing a whopping continuous water flow of 435 gallons per second to feed the creek.

These were some of the more noted bridges we drove across following the original Route 66, but they weren’t the only ones. There were many more, both steel and concrete, from the early 20’s into the early 30’s that have survived and can still be enjoyed. These are some of the older ones we traveled on:

1923, Concrete Bridge
1923, Triple Pony Steel Bridge

1926, Through Truss Steel Bridge

Granted these bridges are not carrying the huge amount of traffic that use the interstate system, I still find it remarkable that they are providing safe transport for interested travelers today. They are also a great historical reference to how important the ability to travel was to the growth of our country.