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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 08:06 am

One man's journey on Route 66

From tow truck to guppies

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Photo illustration by Nick Steinkamp

During its half-century as a cross-country highway, Route 66 was the road taken frequently by migrants. In 1933 and '34, a half-million people drove it to Chicago to see Sally Rand and the World's Fair. At the same time, a half-million Dust Bowl refugees were driving it west to pursue the American dream. After the Second World War, 3 million veterans and other people drove it toward prosperous new lives in the Golden State. This last rush moved Frank Lloyd Wright to say that the entire continent was tilting and Route 66 was a giant chute down which everything loose in this country was sliding into Southern California.

Today, although much of its pavement survives, Route 66 is no longer a primary way to get from point A to point B, or point C, or LA. Rather, it is a destination itself. Its great economic engine has throttled down, but the road remains a potent metaphor for 20th-century America. Nothing much has happened in the United States in the past 80 years that can't be illustrated with a story from Route 66. It has shown us not only who we were as a country but also who we could be.

Route 66's promise of adventure and personal reinvention lives on, even with people who've stayed mostly in one place.

Take Frank Kohlrus, a local entrepreneur who says he likes to "shoot the breeze better than I like to eat or sleep." To facilitate this bent, the Springfield native keeps a picnic table outside his shop on Old 66 in Williamsville. And to encourage visitors to stay a bit longer, he sells soda for just a quarter a can. He hopes to someday join the ranks of such 66 storyteller icons as Ed Waldmire, Bill Shea, and Ernie Edwards.

At age 50, Kohlrus still has plenty of time to reach that goal. To the extent that he succeeds, he will do more to sustain the culture of 66 than any special event ever can. Springfield's Mother Road Festival this weekend will be a wonderful party: Tens of thousands of visitors will enjoy classic cars, good food, live entertainment, and each other's company for three days. But ultimately such events only evoke Route 66. Kohlrus and people like him define it. As the roof sign on his shop says, "Open 24 Hours a Day -- Except When Closed."

In the early, slower days of travel, cars and people both needed a lot more attention than they do now. In the motels, diners, gas stations, and repair shops of Route 66, they got it. Thus dawned a golden age for mom-and-pop entrepreneurs. Kohlrus spent his younger years in one of its remnants, Kelly's Poplars, at the corner of Peoria Road and Catalina Avenue.

The complex included an office on Catalina and a gas station, café, and motel cabins on Peoria Road. Kohlrus and his family lived in what had been the office. He remembers a lighted concrete tunnel that went from that building to the house but can only guess as to its use. The café is now the Magic Kitchen restaurant.

A neighborhood pal helped Kohlrus get his first job at a gas station south of Bill Shea's on Peoria Road. He started at 50 cents an hour but soon dropped out of high school to run the place. In 1972 he bought a truck and graduated to the towing business. His garage was located on Catalina, next door to his former home.

"At one time, I had five trucks," he says, "but when I got the business going pretty good, I spent more time babysitting help than working." In the early '90s, he sold out. Since then, like most 66 businesspeople before him, he's kept a lot of irons in the fire. For a time, he raised parakeets in his property on Wolf Creek Road. About 10 years ago, though, he switched to his first love, guppies, because they require less rigorous attention. Still, he spends hours each morning -- 4-8 o'clock -- working on his tanks.

"I have 14 color strains going now," he says. They include one that developed by accident in a coffeepot. "I can produce 1,000 pairs a month. Some days I'll take them all to a wholesaler in St. Louis. Other days I'll just put 100 pairs in the truck and take off in one direction or the other."

On spring and summer mornings, once the fish have gotten their daily ration of brine shrimp, Kohlrus and his wife, Jackie, head out to the cemeteries. Nine years ago, a friend asked for the couple's temporary help in maintaining several small burial grounds in the area. After two years as temporaries, they took over the business.

"We could spend four hours a day at the cemeteries, or we could spend 12," Kohlrus says, "but that's OK. I'm not really into the 8-to-5 thing."

By noon, if he's done maintaining the dead, Kohlrus is behind the counter at his newest venture -- the shop in Williamsville. Like his guppy ranch, it started as a hobby, then Topsied into a business.

"I started collecting diecast cars in 1990," he said. "My specialty is '53 Chevies, but I can also get you a Tucker. We were getting most of our cars at festivals, so before long, I started selling there, too. I put my display cases on wheels, and we'd just roll 'em right in. One year we did 49 shows. We could be in Danville one day and Quincy the next. There's a show in northern Iowa where we sold 300 cars. But at other shows we'd be doing good to sell 10. I was getting burned out on the traveling, so three years ago we rented this shop. I also have a case at the Big R on Dirksen."

Kohlrus decorated the shop, a former gas station, with stuffed animals, a mannequin in a poodle skirt and saddle shoes, life-size cutouts of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, and other memorabilia from his various careers. His wife painted a Betty Boop sign on the main door. The pump island was still in the driveway, so he put pumps back on it. When a stalk of volunteer corn joined them, he hung an "Ethanol" sign on it.

Kohlrus opened the shop just three weeks after 9/11. The number of tourists has surprised him. As most other Route 66 attractions report, many come from foreign lands. But diecast sales have been disappointing. Consequently, Kohlrus has had to diversify. Shield-shaped signs on his roof now declare that he also makes keys, sharpens tools, repairs tires, sells hardware, and performs minor surgery (by appointment only). He also owns a few properties and lets a neighbor's cattle graze on his pasture. A key, a car, a cow, and a guppy at a time, he's making it from day to day -- which is how most people made it on the Mother Road.

Maybe you can't shuck and jive on I-55. But as long as there are characters such as Frank Kohlrus out there, you can still get your kicks on Route 66. Stop by after the festival and find out how.

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