Route 66: The Highway and Its People (1988) has always been my favorite among the many histories of the fabled highway. I purchased my copy in Sedona, AZ in 1989, during the years when my family and I lived in nearby Flagstaff. The photographer Quinta Scott and the historian-writer Susan Croce Kelly researched the highway and interviewed many people associated with the road. Scott took photographs, Kelly wrote the text, and the book was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I used the book in my “American Highways and American Wanderlust” colloquium at University of Akron.
Now, Kelly (Susan Kirkpatrick) has written a wonderful biography of Cyrus Stevens Avery (1871-1963), the “Father of Route 66,” also published by University of Oklahoma Press. What a fascinating life! Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, young Avery and his parents and siblings journeyed to Indian Territory and then Missouri. He went to college in Missouri, married Essie McClelland, then moved back to Oklahoma where he was an insurance agent, moved into real estate loans, and established the Avery Oil and Gas Company. In 1907, he and his wife and children moved to Tulsa.
Automobile travel at that time was new but growing rapidly. Roads were dirt and gravel, poorly suited for cars. Consequently, the Good Roads Movement in the 1910s was an effort to improve and eventually to pave highways. Avery became interested in this effort, which would benefit Tulsa and Oklahoma. He became a leader in the movement. Among his several roles, he joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, was president of the Albert Pike Highway Association, and was president of the Associated Highway Associations of America.
He was also appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, the task of which was to designate and mark a new system of federal highways. Prior to that time, roads had names, like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others. But as the designation of named highways had been controversial in the 1910s, with towns vying for a place on major routes, similar controversies occurred in the laying-out of federal roads. One dispute was fateful. Boosters proposed a route from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri and eventually to Los Angeles, and proposed number was U.S. 60. Avery, though, pressed for a major road from Chicago to Los Angeles, also via Springfield, MO, that would pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Such a road would benefit his town and state, unlike the proposed U.S. 60 which, under the original plan, would not enter Oklahoma.
In the layout of federal routes, the west-east transcontinental highways would end in 0, and the principal north-south highways would end in 1. (My hometown Vandalia, IL, which Susan mentions as the terminus for the pioneer National Road, is on two of these routes: 40 and 51.) Avery wanted his route through Tulsa to be U.S. 60, identifying the road as a major route. Kentucky leaders, however, balked at that idea, since the proposed U.S. 60 would (and still does) serve that state. The number 62 was suggested (U.S. 62 is now the highway from El Paso to Niagara Falls). Avery disliked that number, but he and his associate Frank Page discovered that the euphonious number 66 had not yet been assigned to a road. Thus was born the Chicago-Los Angeles highway that became famous.
The federal highway system of numbered routes became reality in 1926. The work of improving and paving those roads continued for many years. Avery was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and its work of paving and promoting U.S. 66. As a member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was also involved in the approval of the signage with which we’re all familiar, including shields for highways, octagonal stop signs, round railroad signs, yellow diamond-shaped caution signs, and rectangular speed limits signs.
Other aspects of Avery’s life are also noteworthy: his work for a Tulsa airport and for a water pipeline to the city, his tireless handling of political disagreements, his travels, and his efforts to improve race relations. During his life, he earned the animosity of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually lost his job as a state highway commissioner because of Klan manipulation. In her readable style, Susan discusses these and many other aspects of Avery’s long career in business and public service.
Avery died in 1963. He is honored in Tulsa with several memorials, and nearly any highway history will mention his work for Route 66. It’s fortunate that now he has a history of his own!