The transformation from highway to icon commenced in

early 1927 with the establishment of the U.S. Highway 66 Association, a sort of chamber of commerce for the entire highway corridor. Pardon the pun but from launch of a highway signed with the double 6 to international brand recognition it has been a long and interesting road. Shortly after the highways certification, a very successful marketing campaign branded the highway as the Main Street of America. John Steinbeck labeled it the Mother Road in his seminal book the The Grapes of Wrath. Nat King Cole gave the highway a theme song in 1946. Buzz and Todd put the highway in the living rooms of tens of thousands of Americans through the magic of television. Route 66, the highway that officially ceased to exist in 1985, is intertwined in the social fabric of America to such a degree it has come to symbolize an authentic American experience.

In the 21st century Route 66 is the most famous highway in America. It is also the world’s longest theme park, a linear time capsule, the worlds longest small town, and an interactive museum. It is an almost magical place where the essence of the American experience has been distilled and refined, a community that is international in scope, and a phenomena that transcends barriers of language and culture. 

What is missing from the Route 66 community in the 21st century is the U.S. Highway 66 Association, an organization that magnifies the promotion and marketing of small business owners as well as communities, that provides the political clout of numbers, that unifies the corridor as a community with common goals, and that is capable of meeting future needs of the international Route 66 communities. Many well meaning and somewhat successful organizations and initiatives have been launched (National Historic 66 Federation, Route 66: The Road Ahead Partnership, Route 66 Alliance, Route 66 Chamber of Commerce) but not one has yet been able to emulate the reach, the impact, and flexibility of the original organization. We also have a number of private individual initiatives, such as Jim Hinckley’s America, that work to highlight the needs of the overall community and provide promotional support for businesses and communities.

A presentation on the past and future of Route 66 made by author Jim Hinckley. Photo Judy Hinckley

So, if an existent organization, or a new organization was to emulate the original U.S. Highway 66 Association, and their success, what would they need to do? They would need to lead, not dictate. They would need to create and maintain a modern, interactive business directory. They would need to form cooperative political partnerships. They would need boots on the ground, people that have an intimate relationship with community leaders and business owners, and an understanding of the Route 66 community. They would need to be able to provide travel planning assistance without favoritism. They would need a presence at events, and be able to provide assistance to event organizers in the form of marketing and solicitation for sponsors. They would need to be able to develop educational materials for communities that foster an awareness of the importance of linking tourism with economic development.

So, have I forgotten anything? What needs do you see in the Route 66 community? What can we do as a community to prepare for the highways centennial?