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North Hills Monthly

Springfield and Carthage, Missouri Unique Part of the Mother Road

Jun 30, 2018 11:49AM ● By Vanessa Orr

The Rail Haven Motor Court, which has been welcoming guests since 1938.

As someone who loves to take road trips, I’ve always dreamed of traveling the Mother Road—all 2,400 miles of Route 66 from Chicago to California. And while I haven’t yet had the opportunity to drive the entire length, I did get to spend a few days this spring wandering around Springfield and Carthage, MO, which whetted my appetite for a much longer trip.

Approximately 300 miles of the famed highway runs through the state of Missouri, and these towns are at the heart of it all. There are signs everywhere reminding you that you’re on the mythic road, as well as attractions and accommodations that have hosted visitors since they first started heading west.

A great place to learn more about the area is the History Museum on the Square in Springfield, which houses a Memories of the Mother Road exhibit that includes postcards, articles, photos and a short film documenting the famous drive. There are all sorts of fascinating facts to be found here—who knew, for example, that Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 was the first drive-in restaurant in America? Not only was it memorable because of its name—it was supposed to read “hamburger” but the last two letters didn’t fit on the sign—but it changed the way that people thought about eating while traveling. 

Happily, a number of the motels that served patrons along Route 66 during its heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s are still standing, and one of these is Rail Haven Motor Court, which has been open since 1938. At the time, you could get a cabin with a steam-heated garage for $4.50 a night; while the price has increased since then, it’s still an affordable and unique place to lay your head. Now owned by Best Western, the motel still retains the nostalgic look and feel of times gone by; there are even classic cars parked outside to complete the look.

A vintage police car marks the entrance to the Boots Court Motel, which is located a short drive away in Carthage, MO. This black-and-white stunner still showcases the Art Deco Streamline Moderne style of the 1940s, and walking into a room feels like traveling back to a simpler time. One special bonus if you stay at the Boots is that you might get the opportunity to stay in the same room as 1930s leading man Clark Gable; he visited the motel twice, so you even have two different rooms from which to choose. And while there are no TVs (to keep it authentic), the motel advertises a radio in every room! And who could need more than that?

If you answered yes to that question, it’s important to note that both Springfield and Carthage do have a myriad of more modern offerings as well, and not just in accommodations. The craft beer and spirits movement is alive and well in Springfield’s downtown, and you can enjoy handcrafted libations at any number of places, including Mother’s Brewing Company, Lost Signal Brewing Company, Missouri Spirits and Springfield Brewing Company. I especially liked Missouri Spirits—not only because they have a rather fantastic Black Walnut Old-fashioned, but they also have a really cool seating area that includes porch swings inside the building.

The Hotel Vandivort is a modern, chic, boutique hotel where you can find handcrafted, farm-to-table food in their restaurant The Order, which is named after the fact that it is located in what was originally a Freemason building. The digital age has found a real foothold here—people from all over the country (and the world) take selfies in the Vandivort’s restrooms and post them online because there’s something special about the lighting that makes everyone look pretty great. Check out #HotelVandivortBathroomSelfie—I seriously cannot make this stuff up.

One of Springfield’s newest attractions is The Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium (WOW), voted USA Today’s 2017 Best New Attraction in America. The brainchild of Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, WOW includes 1.5 miles of exhibits showing the natural habitats of the animal kingdom. I personally was a big fan of the aquarium portion of the complex, which showcases more than 35,000 animals, including 800 species of sharks, rays, jellies, eels, sportfish and more, and I was particularly entranced—in fact, mesmerized—by the giant, swirling herring-made bait ball, which you usually only see in nature documentaries. 

And what would a visit to Route 66 be without a stop at the Route 66 Car Museum? Though he only started collecting cars in 1990, owner Guy Mace adds anywhere from two to eight cars to his collection each year, which includes a 1936 Buick, 1967 Austin Healy, and 1936 Horch. The collection also includes one of the cars from the movie Ghostbusters, as well as a Batmobile—and yes, I lived out my childhood fantasy by sitting inside.

Speaking of riding, Fantastic Caverns, America’s only drive-through cave, offers a unique way to see what’s underground in the Cave State, especially for those who have mobility issues or who feel claustrophobic climbing through small caverns. Riders on Jeep-drawn trams are treated to cave formations that include stalactites and stalagmites, tiny soda straws, cave pearls, and massive columns and flowstones, as well as a history of the cave, which was originally explored by a group of 12 women back in 1867. Their names are still written on a cave wall.  

One other must-stop is Red Oak II, a semi-artists’ colony and quirky, not-quite ghost town that is a throwback to a simpler time. Located in Carthage, the community is the brainchild of Lowell Davis, a local artist who began collecting cool buildings back in the 1980s as a way to resurrect the rural communities of his childhood. Now the area includes a blacksmith shop, an old Phillips 66 station, an 1840s jail and marshal’s cabin from Oklahoma, abandoned planes, and exceptional outdoor sculptures using found materials and more. While the area is kind of hard to explain, it is well worth a quick detour from the Mother Road to check it out.  

There is so much more to do along Missouri’s Route 66—including unique shopping and incredible restaurants—that I can’t fit it all here, so check out www.springfieldmo.org to learn more about all that the area has to offer.