By Roger McKinney
Globe Staff Writer
GALENA, Kan. —
Within an hour last week, Four Women on the Route had visitors from France, Spain, Denmark and Australia.
And the business wasn’t even officially open for the Route 66 tourism season. The opening is set for Tuesday.
Melba Rigg, one of the owners, said she was expecting only the group from Australia, but the Chicago-to-California highway known as America’s Main Street and the Mother Road has become an international celebrity since its demise as a U.S. highway, drawing visitors from around the world.
Irene Vazquez and Angel Jimenez, from Spain, were among those in Galena on Thursday. They were traveling the route from Chicago to Los Angeles.
“It’s really amazing,” Vazquez said. “We only know the USA through movies and TV. Everything we see here is like a movie. Our houses, restaurants, everything is different.”
Route 66 tourism also is big business each spring, summer and fall for communities along the former highway.
The Carthage (Mo.) Convention and Visitors Bureau is planning a Travel Workers Rally on May 8 at the historic Boots Motel. It will be opening day for the motel. New owners Debye Harvey and Priscilla Bledsaw so far have refurbished five rooms to look as they did when the motel opened for its first Route 66 travelers in 1939.
“The goal is to just unify the people who are employed in the travel industry,” Wendi Douglas, director of the tourism bureau, said of the May 8 event. The rally, which starts at 9 a.m., will include remarks from Mayor Mike Harris, Chamber of Commerce President Mark Elliff, the president of the Precious Moments Foundation and motel owners.
Douglas said the Jasper County Courthouse, which houses a Route 66 Museum, also is a draw for some visitors, as is the 66 Drive-In Theatre.
There were 65 Australians in cars and on motorcycles in Galena on Thursday, too. Dale Butel, one of the guides with the Australian tour group, said many make the journey because of the things Australia has in common with the United States.
“We were raised on movies and TV from America,” Butel said. “Route 66 is one of the most famous highways in the world. Australia also is a car culture, like here.”
Butel said many on the journey were car buffs.
“Australians want to see this country from an American perspective,” he said. “They love Americana.”
David and Rachael Melville, their daughter Jessica, 7, and Rachael Melville’s mother, Shirley Atchison, were on the trip. They’re from Brisbane, Australia. David Melville, describing himself as a car buff, said he had seen the tour advertised in a car magazine in Australia.
“We’re loving it, absolutely loving it,” he said. Jessica said she was looking forward to going to Disneyland at the conclusion of the trip.
Richard and Trish Davies are from Busselton in western Australia.
“We’re car nuts,” Richard Davies said.
“The historic value of the trip is very important,” Trish Davies added.
Martin Jean-Yvas said he was with 11 retired friends from France. They also decided to travel Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Local Dean Walker entertained the groups by turning his feet backward while Joe Douffet drove the Galena Museum’s 1919 Model T to the restored gas station, where he took questions about the car.
“We’re anticipating this to be a record travel season,” said Amanda Davis, director of the Miami (Okla.) Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re very hopeful.”
Davis said Route 66 is a big draw and a big emphasis for the community.
“It’s a huge part of our market,” she said. “It’s where we target our advertising and marketing. We’re already seeing several Route 66 tour groups come through. It’s a good indicator.”
South of Miami is a 9-foot-wide, three-mile-long stretch of Route 66 called the Ribbon Road. Miami also boasts the historic Coleman Theatre and other examples of Mother Road Americana including Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger and Lavern’s Wedding Chapel. Another draw is the Route 66 Vintage Iron Motorcycle Museum.
“Our hotel tax is up 30 percent year-to-date,” Davis said. “Route 66 makes a huge impact on those numbers.”
A restored historic gas station houses the Webb City (Mo.) Area Chamber of Commerce and a Route 66 Museum, which includes a mural, antique cars and other memorabilia. Other attractions include the Bradbury-Bishop Deli and the Route 66 Movie Theater.
“We always have a good turnout” of Route 66 tourists, said Webb City economic development director Chuck Surface. “It’s a natural tie-in for economic development.”
Patrick Tuttle, director of the Joplin (Mo.) Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he also targets a lot of marketing and advertising toward Route 66 tourism. Tuttle said the Mother Road Marathon on Oct. 14 is one of the ways the area is highlighting and capitalizing on Route 66. He said it’s the only marathon along Route 66 that allows runners to cover three states.
“It’s a major piece of our history,” Tuttle said. “We see large volumes of tourists from overseas and stateside. We’re forever linked to it.”
Story and song
Route 66 was born in 1926 as a planked, rough, all-weather road. John Steinbeck immortalized it in “The Grapes of Wrath” as “the path of people in flight.” Songwriter Bobby Troup penned the famous song that has been recorded by everyone from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones.