BULLHEAD CITY — Though the event was promoted as an “armchair road trip” along Route 66, quite a few people had to be satisfied with standing through Monday’s presentation by Jim Hinckley at the Colorado River Historical Society Museum.
Hinckley has written numerous books and articles about Route 66, the Southwest and classic autos.
The historic alignment of Route 66 begins in Chicago and ends a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles, in the city of Santa Monica. Hinckley spoke with Powerpoint visuals behind him to take the audience on the journey that included historical information as well as how long-time spots are used and, sometimes, reused today.
“Route 66 has always been about interesting people and colorful characters,” he said.
A few of the people Hinckley talked about during his fast-paced presentation:
- While Chicago has the reputation of being a highly fertile gangland in the early 20th century, St. Louis also was gangster-friendly during that period. They were, Hinckley said, “particularly nasty people.” So nasty, in fact, that some worked for Al Capone. The lengthy expanse of Route 66 between the two Midwestern cities was used for myriad illegal purposes and enterprises. Thomas “Snake” Kinney, born in the St. Louis neighborhood of Kerry Patch, was an organized crime figure who helped create the “Egan’s Rats” gang and was said to have killed a “business” rival. He later managed to get into Missouri state politics, eventually becoming a state senator who wrote important pieces of labor legislation.
- Threatt Filling Station, in the town of Luther, Okla., was the state’s first to serve African-Americans and located on the old 66 route. The Bungalow-Craftsman building stands virtually unchanged and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was constructed around 1915 by Alan Threatt, after he and his family farmed, and operated a sandstone quarry. They used the stone they quarried to build the service station. The Threatts had made their way to the area near the end of the 19th century with other former slaves to homestead in the Oklahoma Territory. Hinckley said it was one of the few businesses along Route 66 that welcomed people of color. Non-whites traveling Route 66 had to carry large amounts of food and water along with empty jars and toilet paper because of racial segregation. Few places welcomed their business.
- In Shamrock, Texas, along the historic route is another building on the National Register of Historic Places: the U-Drop Inn. The art deco structure was built in 1936 but fell into disrepair after Route 66 was bypassed by Interstate 40. Original owner John Nunn conceived designs that, after being carried out by J.M. Tindall and R.C. Lewis, became iconic. Hinckley said Nunn sponsored a contest to name the location; a 10-year-old boy won the contest and a $5 prize. The structure changed hands (and names) repeatedly and now houses the city’s chamber of commerce and visitors center. Hinckley asked some Webelo Scouts sitting up front if they recognized the building from somewhere. They did — it was the model for Ramona’s Body Shop in the animated film “Cars.” Among additions to the location over the years is a Tesla charging station for electric cars.
- Today, the old Navajo County Courthouse in Holbrook, Ariz., is the site of the county’s historical society and museum. It sits along the old 66 route. Hinckley told a story about the county’s first elected sheriff to further bring the building to life. Frank Wattron is best known for sending out an invitation to a hanging that was so outrageous that President William McKinley wired the territorial governor to order him to stay the execution and issue Wattron a written reprimand. Here’s a portion of it: “Latest improved methods in the art of scientific strangulation will be employed and everything possible will be done to make the proceedings cheerful and the execution a success.” There were no style rules for such invitations but the notification about executions to other sheriffs around the state and some territory officials was a requirement. Wattron then went further by having the invitation printed professionally on gilt-bordered paper after being “goaded by his friends,” Hinckley said. “Well, I got a hell of a lot of notoriety anyway,” Wattron reportedly told a friend afterward.