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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 05:23 pm

Memory lane

Carol Sponagle has recorded the Route 66 reminiscences of some top state politicians
Photo by Todd Spivak

The thing that unites virtually all of the attractions along what's left of the iconic Route 66 is the wacky one-of-a-kind kitsch: the giant ketchup bottle that sits atop a water tower in Collinsville, Ill.; the row of rusting, half-buried Cadillacs in Amarillo, Texas; the motel composed of concrete teepees in Holbrook, Ariz.

"The tacky-type stuff reached its pinnacle with Route 66," says Bob Waldmire, a traveling artist whose father founded Springfield's own Route 66 landmark Cozy Dog Drive In. "Today the kitsch is one of the road's most prized objects of preservation."

And the thing that seems to unite all of the old-timers who traveled the Mother Road during its heyday is the look of mischief -- a sly grin, a glint in the eye -- that washes over their faces as they mosey down memory lane.

Route 66, enthusiasts say, symbolizes an era of 20th-century American history when travelers interacted more. It invokes the days before drive-through chain restaurants and automated gas stations homogenized and depersonalized the nation's highways.

Mom-and-pop shops, now a relic of the past, dotted the way. People leaned on each other for help. They whiled away afternoons swapping stories so that the towns they rode through became more than just signposts. The route itself became the destination.

"I love to jawbone, to tell stories, and I could go on for days about Route 66," says Waldmire.

Such reminiscences are worth preserving, says Pat Kuhn, executive director of the Springfield-based Illinois Route 66 Heritage Project.

Kuhn is spearheading a Route 66 oral-history project that she plans to include in her formal proposal to designate Illinois' section of Route 66 a National Scenic Byway under the Federal Highway Administration.

"We want to make sure that these stories are captured and they're archived," says Kuhn, who says she will submit the application in January. "We're just trying to gather as much firsthand knowledge as we can."

A booth will be set up at this weekend's third annual International Route 66 Mother Road Festival and Car Show downtown, where visitors can have their memories recorded for posterity. Springfield native Carol Sponagle, a former archivist at the Illinois State Historical Library, began the project during the state fair last month, interviewing 60 people with a digital video camera.

Sponagle videotaped several Illinois Route 66 legends, such as the owners of Henry's Ra66it Ranch in Staunton and the Pig Hip Museum in Broadwell and recently deceased author and historian Tom Teague. She also recorded the recollections of such high-ranking state politicians as Secretary of State Jesse White and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

Those interviews, which are being edited by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, have an informal, home movie-like quality to them.

Quinn begins by loosening his striped tie. The wind whips his hair, and he struggles to speak over the sounds of carnival music, locusts, and screaming children. He talks for several minutes about his family's 1964 trip along the Mother Road that spanned the entire eight-state path, from Los Angeles to Chicago. His memories are of hospitality, friendliness, and homemade foods.

"I'll always connect 66 with family vacations," says Quinn. "Every place had a story to tell; it was hard to get home, really."

Illinois has only begun to embrace its Route 66 heritage, which has already proved a popular and lucrative attraction, says Kim Rosendahl, director of tourism for the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The local festival lured some 50,000 people to Springfield last year, up from 35,000 in 2002, Rosendahl says. The influx of visitors had a considerable impact on the local economy last year, bringing in an estimated $1.3 million.

This year's numbers are expected to be even higher because the festival -- and, specifically, its antique-car show -- has caught on internationally. Last year people came from 35 states and eight countries; this year the festival boasts 14 vintage cars registered from London alone.

"They come literally from all over," says Rosendahl. "It's become one of the larger events now in Springfield."

As Route 66 winds its way into the future through celebrations of old cars and '50s kitsch, Sponagle says, it is important to preserve its past through personal tales of simpler, more personable times.

"The history of Route 66 isn't just about the cold, hard facts," she says. "It's finding out those intimate stories about how the road affected people's lives."

The Route 66 oral-history project will be set up at the intersection of Seventh and Washington streets 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. It's free, and interviewees can have their stories amplified through a sound system for passersby to hear.

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