Day 6: Fifteen Minutes of Fame for Route 66, Kansas

American Pop Artist, Andy Warhol, once said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” Well, for Kansas it is more like 15 miles… Actually, there are only 13.2 miles of Route 66 that go through this state. But it is some of the best preserved stretches of the old road, and we definitely wanted to spend more than 15 minutes there.

Crossing into Kansas we stopped to photograph the “Route 66″ shields stenciled on the asphalt road. We were in a spot known locally as “Hell’s Half Acre.” Empty land on either side of the Route had been scarred by years of mining that only ended in the 1970s. For a moment we were all alone. Then from the other direction, we saw a man walking slowly backwards in the middle of the road. As he came into focus, we saw he was holding a camera, and he was photographing a car coming from the west. Fellow travellers of the Mother Road. We acknowledged each other politely as we crossed paths and continued on in opposite directions.

We followed the stenciled 66 shields into Galena. It looked like a film-set ghost town, with empty streets and shuttered businesses, but actually it was just the time of day — 5:30pm. Too late to visit the Mining and Historical museum.

The town itself had grown up out of the mining activity in the rocky hills nearby. Like so many mining boomtowns, it thrived as long as the led and zinc deposits held out, but when the minerals were exhausted, the population dwindled. It was the presence of Route 66 that kept the Galena alive.

“Silly Squirrel” was suddenly quite worried. He absolutely had to get a Kansas postcard for his growing collection. With most of the shops closed, this presented a bit of a challenge. We couldn’t find any place that might carry them still open in Galena. We had better luck in Riverton, at the Eisler Brothers Old Riverton Store. Although at first glance it seemed more of a grocery store, we quickly located the Route 66 souvenirs, including postcards. In our enthusiasm we ended up buying a small stack of them, so while we were actually only in Kansas for an hour or two, we have postcards for days.

Moving through Kansas, we traded the history of mining boomtowns for the legends of the old west. The architecture echoed a western movie main street. And we started hearing stories about cowboys.

Baxter Springs inherited the role of “cow town” after Missouri became off-limits to the Texas cattle drivers. The cowboys were welcomed in Kansas, and this frontier town built stockyards that could hold 20,000 cows. With plenty of range land and water, the town quickly became prosperous. Saloons and gambling halls enticed cowboys fresh from the trail, making it a truly “wild west” scene complete with brawls and gunfights.

And “outlaws” too. The infamous James-Younger gang robbed the Crowell Bank here in 1876. The building still stands, now home to the Cafe on the Route. The town may even hold a record for “most repeat robberies”: in the 1930’s, Bonnie and Clyde robbed the Baxter Springs General Store twice in one week!


More from Kansas Route 66:
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: Portfolio: Kansas Route 66

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