Oklahoma’s Route 66 Heritage to Take Center Stage

By Bob Blackburn

Like so many Baby Boomers born in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, I remember spending hours in the back seat of my parents’ car, speeding west on Route 66 to the Grand Canyon, Disney Land and any number of discoveries and adventures.

We may not have realized it at the time, but the road we were riding on was a path into the future of this country. Route 66 was the symbol of a revolution that has changed lives, changed culture, and opened new doors to prosperity for millions.

The automobile took off like a rocket ship in the 1920s, just about the time Route 66 was being born in Oklahoma and seven other states between Chicago and Santa Monica. The historic road was the nation’s first national highway, connecting East to West and transforming the way we traveled.

Prior to Route 66, drivers had to navigate a patchwork of local roads that were not uniform, loosely connected, and difficult to follow, compelling most to use trains for long-distance travel. But Route 66 changed that, making cross-country road trips viable for the first time, awakening a renewed sense of freedom and adventure we’ve been celebrating ever since.

Though the U.S. Interstate Highway System replaced Route 66 years ago, thousands of travelers from across the country and around the world still drive the Mother Road every year. These days, it’s not about getting from point A to point B. This stretch of highway is the destination, and small towns like Miami, El Reno, and Elk City are among the many pearls on a 2,400-mile necklace of history, lore, and nostalgia.

For decades, the highway has inspired books, movies, television shows and songs telling how Route 66 helped change America. Route 66 will be 100 years old in 2026, and it is fitting that Oklahoma will take the lead in June, kicking off a four-year build-up to the centennial celebration. After all, Tulsa’s Cyrus Avery is known as the Father of Route 66 for his work in designing the highway and Oklahoma has more miles of the Mother Road than any other state. The historic highway even brushes against the State Capitol grounds as it passes through Oklahoma City.

The AAA Route 66 Road Fest begins on June 18 in Oklahoma City and ends on June 26 in Tulsa, and the celebration will spill into Catoosa, Arcadia, Clinton, and several other Route 66 towns across Oklahoma.

The event in Oklahoma City and Tulsa will present the decades through a collection of interpretive exhibits, traveling through time from the 1920s through the 2010s and beyond. There will be food, music, and cars, lots of cars. There will be classic cars, remote-controlled cars, and automated cars of the future.

While the Road Fest will be in Oklahoma, it is not just for Oklahomans. This four-year countdown to 2026, is the start of a national celebration that will capture international attention, and Oklahoma’s East to West heritage will be at center stage.

Bob Blackburn is a native Oklahoman who served as executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society from 1999 to 2021. In his retirement, Blackburn continue to write, speak, and consult on Oklahoma and the American West.