RIVERTON, Kan. —
An iconic sign on Route 66 that once pointed the way to the Spring River Inn has disappeared from the spot it occupied for at least five decades.
But it will be back, so promises a group of preservationists.
“It’s such an iconic sign,” said Renee Charles, a Galena native who as a high school student worked at the inn for owner Julia Birk-Tutin.
Her husband, Billy Charles, also worked there, and the pair got married at the inn in 1982.
“It sparks memories in a whole lot of people from this area,” she said.
Now the president of the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association, she is helping spearhead a fundraiser to restore and rehang the sign.
Though historical accounts are somewhat conflicting, what became the Spring River Inn was operated as the Joplin Country Club beginning in 1905. Accounts hold that it at first catered to wealthy patrons from Galena.
The clubhouse and 60 acres were sold in 1932 and used for many years as the base for a boating club.
Birk-Tutin and her husband purchased the site and reopened it as a restaurant in 1970.
It was in bad shape when they bought it, Birk-Tutin recalled on Wednesday.
“My husband bought it on a lark — he had no idea what he was going to do with it,” she said.
“But it was a historical place. It was quite a social center. I remember hearing that Eleanor Roosevelt stayed there during the 1930s.”
Birk-Tutin said that at the inn’s height of business, she employed 50 to 60 people who served crowds of 2,200 people on holidays and special occasions.
“Mother’s Day was always big, and so was Easter,” she said. “A regular Sunday would be around 1,200 people, and on Friday and Saturday nights we would have 800 to 900. On holidays we went all out on decorating, with a 25-foot cedar tree for Christmas.”
The Spring River Inn menu was full of comfort foods, Birk-Tutin said: cinnamon pull-aparts, fried chicken, homemade noodles, real mashed potatoes and gravy every day, seasonal vegetables like green beans and fried okra, and macaroni and cheese.
As for the iconic sign, she recalls it being manually operated; an employee turned it on each morning and off each night they were in operation.
The inn burned in 1998, two years after Birk-Tutin sold it to Steve and Cheryl Vogel.
This spring, the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association asked the property owner for permission to remove the sign and transfer it to Allen Sign Studio in Miami, Okla., while the group raises funds to have it restored.
“I was pleased,” Birk-Tutin said of learning of plans for restoring the sign. “I was so pleased.
“I wanted Spring River Inn to go on forever. It just has a tremendous amount of history. And good memories.”
Colby Allen, owner of Allen Sign Studio, said he was relieved when he found out that the sign was going to be restored.
“I’m 52, and it was there all my life,” he said. “You could always tell where you were at when you passed by there because of the green neon. That sign was iconic. I thought it had either been hauled to the scrap yard or someone had stolen it.
“Lo and behold, they were bringing it here to our shop.”
The sign is “in pretty bad shape,” he said.
Renee Charles said the repair bill will be about $3,000.
“We are going to try to salvage as much as we can,” Allen said.
“Obviously all the neon is broken on it, the cabinet is rusted beyond repair, but I can take patterns off of what’s left. I’m just glad someone didn’t just let it go by the wayside.”
Those who want to donate may call Charles at 620-202-1615, or may visit the association’s booth at the Route 66 International Festival in Joplin, Mo., on Friday and Saturday or the group’s booth at the Galena festival on Friday.
“It will be really cool if a lot of people get behind it,” Allen said. “Hopefully it will lead to other things being restored.”
“I grew up on Route 66. I think sometimes you really take it for granted what you have. But it’s so important to remember it and preserve it.”
THE SPRING RIVER INN SIGN, when reinstalled, will be just a few blocks from another popular Route 66 icon: the Eisler Brothers Old Riverton Store, which has been in business near the junction of Old Route 66 and U.S. Highway 69 since 1925.