Travel on Route 66 in its heyday was something to write home about.
The Mother Road opened new worlds to tourists eager to send postcards to share their discovery of such exotic places as Florence “Mom” Madsen’s Dining Room in Amarillo. Known in these parts as “The Chicken Queen,” Madsen served fried chicken and biscuits to locals, foreign ambassadors, actors and sports heros.
Postcards now are an essential and abiding part of the road’s lore, preserving images of lost stops along the famed east-west band.
“To be a hardcore, serious Route 66 follower, ‘collectible’ means finding an authentic postcard or an old highway sign or mementos of the businesses that no longer exist,” said Nick Gerlich, who this month joined his brother in retracing their father’s journey down Route 66 from Chicago to Amarillo.
A West Texas A&M University marketing professor, Gerlich chronicled the trip on a MilesFromNowhere Facebook page.
“I still have a hard time today completely wrapping my mind around the idea of loving an old defunct road,” Gerlich wrote July 10, explaining that public fascination with the Mother Road grew as the federal government decommissioned it in 1985.
“More than anything, I think that 66 stands out among other old U.S. roads because it played such an important role in our history, literature and pop culture,” Gerlich wrote.
Steinbeck didn’t write about U.S. 30, and Bobby Troupe didn’t harmonize about U.S. 1.
Little Feat may have sung about Highway 95; Greg Allman may have been born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus (rolling down Highway 41), but those roads just didn’t cut muster. They only moved people.
“Route 66 moved lives.”
A story in cards
A closer look at Route 66 postcards reveals more than a geographical connection to the road. Hundreds bear the stamp of McCormick Co., now an Amarillo advertising and public relations firm.
“McCormick started in 1926, and that’s when Route 66 began,” said Cathy Pruiett, creative services director and keeper of the agency’s postcard collection.
Company founder James L. McCormick operated a photography business and engraving shop in Amarillo through the 1930s and ’40s and often was hired to photograph attractions along the highway, agency Chairwoman Kathy Cornett said. The company also distributed other companies’ postcards to businesses in the region, Pruiett said.
Employees and friends scour garage sales and antique stores to add to the agency’s collection, which numbers in the hundreds, Cornett said.
The earliest card in the collection, printed in 1934, pictures a seated woman gazing across Palo Duro Canyon, Pruiett said.
Postcard collecting is a “huge, huge hobby,” according to Rudy Franchi, an appraiser for PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.”
“There are thousands of categories people specialize in, and Route 66 is one of the most popular,” Franchi said.
Postcards are abundant, so most won’t bring sellers more than coins. But a Route 66 tie can boost a postcard’s value, Franchi said.
“Route 66 is roadside America — old motels, drive-in theaters, diners,” Franchi said. “There are as many topics as there are people.”
Left-behind legs of the Mother Road expose many once “ultra- modern” tourist courts as forgotten shells — if they’re still standing at all.
“I’ve been fascinated with old motel architecture and things like that since I was a wee one. I’m 65 now,” said Mike Ward, of Mesa, Ariz., whose collection of more than 2,500 postcards gets a regular airing on a Route 66 Postcards Facebook page he helps administer.
“I’ll post them, and if I can find an address and get a (Google) Street View of what’s there now, I’ll post that. Sometimes, (a business) is still operating under another name or it’s been repurposed.”
Many Texas Panhandle attractions freeze-framed on postcards no longer exist.
A Wienerschnitzel operates where Tha Best Tourist Court once stood on East Amarillo Boulevard.
CVS occupies the prime corner at Amarillo Boulevard and Pierce Street/U.S. Highway 87 where La Rose Courts once advertised 22 cottages, 12 hotel rooms and a reading room. A postcard declares the location “Where the Highways of the Nation Meet.”
When Interstate 40 siphoned tourists from Route 66, many businesses died. Newspaper archives contain a few clippings detailing fire damage or petty crimes at the sites.
A “confessed time traveler,” Gerlich said technology and social media have helped create a new era of postcards — or posts, at least.
“One of our biggest collectibles is our photographs,” said Gerlich, a participant in a Route 66 Pictures Facebook group page where people post photos from the old highway.
“Taking those photographs today of things that might have existed 50 years ago, posting pictures of the wreckage, chronicling the historical, in some case, collapse of the buildings — it’s a moving history,” Gerlich said.
“Those old structures are brought forward with today’s pictures … that help the serious Route 66 follower keep it going.”
By Karen Smith Welch – Amarillo Globe News