Springfield, Missouri – the Birthplace of Route 66

Have you ever wondered how Route 66 came to be called Route 66? Why not Route 12? Or Highway 45? Why 66?

The answer is found in Springfield, Missouri, the little city in the Ozarks that gave birth to Route 66, America’s Mother Road.

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Naming America’s Roadways and Route 66

Road trips were not a lot of fun in the early 1900s, but we Americans took off anyway. Roads were a muddy, bumpy mess. Cars had no shock absorbers or cushy, comfy seats. And the idea of Siri living in your phone was 100 years in the future.

Plus, the limited roads had no names, no signs, nothing to guide the mojotraveler of the 1900s. There was no such thing as the U.S. Department of Transportation. There was an organization called the American Association of State Highway Officials and they answered to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. How does that make sense?

So in 1925, they needed a plan for naming highways. It could have been really creative, but simplest is best. East-west routes would be even numbers; north-south roads be odd numbers. Really important roads would all end in zero, so everyone wanted a Zero Highway.

Telegrams and letters went back and forth. Finally the Oklahoma Highway official and the Missouri Highway official were together in a hotel in Springfield, Missouri. The number 66 was still available and the Oklahoma guy thought that sounded kind of catchy. Since 400 miles of this highway would pass through Oklahoma, his opinion carried a bit. They sent a telegram and everyone agreed on April 30, 1926.

The Secretary of Agriculture signed Route 66 into law on November 11, 1926.

What To Do in Springfield – the Birthplace of Route 66

On the square in downtown Springfield is a fun museum that details this history of Route 66 and other events over the years in this city of 170,000. It begins, as it should with Osage and other indigenous people who called southwest Missouri home. There’s plenty about Route 66, about Fred Harvey and music industry here, and the big shoot-out with Wild Bill Hickock.

There’s a little roadside Route 66 park on College Street that, on nice days, is a great spot for a picnic. That’s what they would have done back in the day. You’ll see a few historic sign, some fun mosaics and a couple of good selfie spots. And the original Red’s Hamburg sign is there (keep reading).

America’s First Drive-Thru Restaurant on Route 66

Red’s Giant Hamburg is not technically on Route 66 today, but it was back in 1947.

The story goes Red Chaney’s father owned a little gas station, cafe, and motor court on Route 66 when someone gave him an old intercom system. He came up with the idea of people driving up, placing an order then driving around the building to pick it up.

They cut a hole in the side of the little café near the kitchen and the first drive thru restaurant was born.

Red crafted a massive a wooden sign advertising giant hamburgers. But when they went to install the sign, it interfered with the power lines. So Red grabbed a saw and cut off the big E-R. That’s why it’s Red’s Giant Hamburg.

Red's Giant Hamburg exterior in Springfield, Missouri
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

The original Red’s closed in 1984, but some local guys who remembered it fondly from their childhood decided to rebuild the magic. They contacted Red’s remaining relatives and secured the naming rights and the original floor plan. The idea was to replicate the interior of the original Red’s, but darn, those modern health and building codes got in the way.

Nor were they able to get a spot right on Route 66 in Springfield. Nonetheless, Red’s Giant Hamburg reopened in 2019 and with the exception of adding a vegan burger, the menu is exactly as Red had offered in 1947. You just have to drive over to 2301 W. Sunshine to have one of the best burgers ever.

Where Else to Eat on Route 66 in Springfield, Mo

Another fabulous place to eat in Springfield that is not on Route 66, but has all of the crazy vibe is Casper’s. Nearly 15 years before the Mother Road got her kicks, Casper’s was serving the best chili ever from an old Army quonset hut. It’s a funky place with kitschy stuff tacked up on ceilings and walls. There are aliens, flying fish and pigs, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.
And if you have an extra seat or two at your table during the lunch rush, you’ll probably have complete strangers seated beside you. That’s part of the fun. The chili has a bit of a burn. I had a cheeseburger and fries and was a happy camper. You can’t go to Springfield without eating at Casper’s.

Tip: another iconic place to eat in Springfield that has nothing to do with Route 66 is Leong’s Asian Diner. The Springfield-style cashew chicken is another story.

Where to Sleep in Springfield, Mo on Route 66

The Rail Haven Inn has been updated and modernized more than a few times over the years, but it was here as a motor court back in the hey day of the Mother Road. In the beginning, in 1938, it was just eight little sandstone cottages. The property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But now you’ll have air conditioning, wifi and cable TV, things the original Route 66 travelers would not have dreamed of. Add to that well designed exhibits in the lobby about the history of Route 66. Check out the fun Elvis Presley Room.

Tip: if the Rail Haven is full, check out the Vandivort Hotel. Ask for a room in the V2, an addition built in 2019 with a super retro feel.

Route 66 passing through downtown Springfield, Missouri
Photo courtesy of Springfield CVB