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Bigger, Brighter - The History of Advertising on Route 66

Written by Melanee Morin

One of the things that makes Route 66 so special is its uniqueness: there’s nothing else quite like it in the world, and its magic cannot be replicated. One of the key driving factors that formed the persona of the Mother Road was, as Oklahoma Route 66 Association member Rhys Martin put it, “the advent of station-wagon tourism.” The creation of the route coincided with the new wave of automobile culture. With the development of more affordable cars, beginning with Ford’s Model T in 1908, and the rise of expendable income after WWII, family road trips became the norm, and every business along the route was vying for these potential customers’ attention. With the plethora of “baby boomer” children, businesses knew the easiest way to bring in consumers was by tempting children’s curiosity: oversized characters, gigantic billboards, and neon lighting up the night. Route 66 effectively became an open-air amusement park designed to enthrall, entice, entertain, but most of all, bring in copious amounts of cash.

Photograph courtesy of David J. Schwartz - Pics on Route 66.

The U.S. Highway 66 Association was established in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the aim of getting the entire route paved and promoting tourism along the road. They began by advertising with billboards, in magazines, and via brochures (the Association published its last brochure in 1974 due to the rise of the Interstate). However, the Association needed nationwide publicity, so they decided to host the first Trans-American Footrace in 1928: a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City that followed Route 66 to Chicago, 3422 miles in total.

Dubbed the “Bunion Derby” by newspapers, the race began on March 4, 1928, with 199 runners. It was organized by sports promoter C.C. Pyle (known as “Cash and Carry” Pyle), who wanted to capitalize on the public’s interest in the race and the new highway by offering towns along the route the opportunity to host the race at endpoints - and cover the costs - along with a traveling sideshow that would follow the runners across the country. However, many towns were not interested and couldn’t afford to host the race, and Pyle quickly began running out of money. He increased the length of the stages to bring the race to an end sooner, and many participants dropped out. One newspaper described the race as “a plodding, disorganized event that taxed the health and sanity of the runners and was largely greeted with indifference by the American public.”

Only 55 runners crossed the finish line in New York City and into Madison Square Garden on May 26, 1928 – 84 days after it started. The winner was Andy Payne, a 19-year- old from Oklahoma and a member of the Cherokee nation, with a time of 573 hours, 4 minutes, and 34 seconds. Despite the revenue issues that plagued the race, Pyle brought it back the following year in 1929 - reversing the route from New York to Los Angeles - but it too was a financial and logistical failure, and the U.S. Highway 66 Association looked to other avenues to promote the route. Los Angeles had been chosen to host the summer Olympics in 1932, and the Association saw this prestigious event as an opportunity to advertise Route 66 to the world.

The 1932 Olympics were really the first time that Route 66, and Los Angeles, were given a standing on the global map. The U.S. Highway 66 Association saw the event as a way to promote a key destination along the route, as well as the highway that could bring people there. The Association placed their first advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post on July 16, 1932, inviting Americans to travel the “Great Diagonal Highway” to the LA Olympics. Within a week, the Association’s office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was overwhelmed with hundreds of requests for information about Route 66 and the Olympics. Despite occurring during the Great Depression, the LA Olympics were a roaring success - over 100,000 spectators attended the opening ceremonies at the Memorial Coliseum, at $3 a seat - thanks in large part to America’s Highway.

But it wasn’t just the official U.S. Highway 66 Association that was developing novel advertising methods, family businesses along the route were also getting creative. Just a year after the Olympics, a man named Lester Dill opened Meramec Caverns in Missouri as a roadside attraction. A mesmerizing network of limestone caves, Meramec Caverns was an ideal destination for families and tourists, but they had to know about it first. Reminiscent of today’s hype marketing, Dill bought dozens of barns along Route 66 and painted them in bright colors with the words “Meramec Caverns,” with many of these barns miles away from the actual attraction. In fact, Dill began traveling the country, offering to paint farmers’ barns for free if he could advertise Meramec Caverns on the roof; at one point, there were some 400 of these “barn billboards” in 40 states. The practice of rooftop advertising was prohibited when new beautification laws were passed in 1968, and now only a few “Meramec Caverns” barns remain as gems along the route, reminding travelers of one man’s innovation and determination; a man who saw every blank canvas as an opportunity.

The Bigger, the Better

Rather than establish a profusion of similar advertisements like Dill, numerous towns and businesses along the route opted to design one oversized monument that drivers could see from afar, that would offer a unique experience to patrons. It is not a coincidence that many of the “world’s largest” items are found along Route 66: you’ll find the world’s largest bottle of ketchup in Collinsville, Illinois, built in 1949 by the W.E. Caldwell Company for the G.S. Suppiger catsup bottling plant; and, the world’s largest concrete totem pole in Foyil, Oklahoma, built by Ed Galloway from 1937 to 1948. The tradition continues today with the (former) world’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Missouri, originally built by Danny Sanazaro to entice customers to his archery and feed store and erected on April Fool’s Day in 2008. You’ll also find the world’s largest pop bottle, a color-shifting LED bottle 66 feet tall, at POPS Soda Ranch in Arcadia, Oklahoma, which opened in 2007.

Although, it’s not just the world’s largest items that draw attention. Just plain big will do as well. There’s the massive Blue Whale in Catoosa, the giant arrows outside the former Twin Arrows Trading Post in Arizona, and the large fibreglass rabbit at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post (along with the legendary “Here it is” billboard). But there’s one type of giant that truly captured the imaginations of Americans that has been proliferated across the route and the country, perhaps, because they are made in our image.

Muffler Men

Over 20-feet-tall and sporting a range of unique costumes and stoic faces, you’ve probably seen some of these gentle giants while on the route, and elsewhere, or felt their siren call to now derelict businesses. Extremely popular as advertising gimmicks in the 1960s, Muffler Men unfailingly caught the eyes of passing travelers, kids and adults alike, bringing in lots of business for the proprietors. It all began with Bob Prewitt of Lawndale, California, who started making fiberglass animals in the late 1950s. In 1962, Prewitt created his first human design, a 20-foot-tall Paul Bunyan figure for the Paul Bunyan Cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona. Based on the famous lumberjack of American folklore, the figure wielded an axe, but when he was bought by a restaurant in 1965, the axe was replaced with a hotdog. Known as the first Muffler Man, Tall Paul now resides in Atlanta, Illinois, and is still holding that delicious frankfurter.

In 1963, the International Fiberglass Company, owned by Steve Dashew, bought Prewitt Fiberglass Animals and acquired all of the molds created by Prewitt. Originally, International Fiberglass made boats, but Dashew decided to promote his larger- than-life figures to businesses hoping to attract more customers. The effectiveness of this advertising technique resulted in a fiberglass giant craze, and during 10 years of production, hundreds were sold in a stunning array of characters: cowboys, astronauts, pirates, female figures in bikinis, giant chickens, dinosaurs and many more. Texaco alone bought 300 figures. Many were designed for auto-shops, holding car parts such as mufflers, which is where the Muffler Men moniker originated. However, the craze was to be short-lived; sales slowed and Dashew ceased production in 1974, selling the company in 1976. But the Muffler Men live on and continue to enchant travelers, long after the businesses they were built to promote have closed. This type of durable and long-lasting advertising is lost in today’s expendable and face-paced marketplace, which makes saving these giants even more important. At the forefront of this charge is Joel Baker.

A variety of fiberglass giants.

Founder of American Giants, Baker became enamored with fiberglass figures in 2011 when he came across a giant fiberglass brontosaurus. When he started doing some research he discovered the Muffler Men, and he says from that moment on he was hooked. “There was something about the age of these giants and all the history and secrets they had,” Baker notes. “It was a unique niche of Roadside Architecture and I was up for the challenge of discovering all I could about these secretive and silent giants.” American Giants began as a website in 2013, where Baker could share his journeys visiting Muffler Men across the country and sharing their stories. YouTube videos and podcasts followed, and in 2015 Baker opened American Giants Restoration. He now has a team that specializes in restoring fibreglass giants, and he also hosts auctions for those wanting to sell their figures. There are over 180 Muffler Men left in America (Baker has visited 150), but they rarely go up for sale, and Baker notes that he is often surprised at the final sale price.

The Muffler Men market is experiencing a renewed interest because, as Baker says, “not only do these gentle giants still do exactly what they were built for in the 1960s, but they are also now a part of the history of Route 66 and Americana.” These figures bring the past into the present, and several generations can enjoy the same experience. “Muffler Men are a special memory to our parents and grandparents. Many of them live in our memories and photo albums and they are a part of roadside history. These giants will live on in pictures from that time, but can also continue to live on physically among us as long as we continue to take care of them. They make our road trips special and add markers to the map and our memories. American Giants works every year to restore these Giants and bring the long lost giant back to the roadsides to be enjoyed once again by thousands.”

Some notable Muffler Men along Route 66 include Chicken Boy in Los Angeles, a muffler man with a custom chicken head, holding bucket of fried chicken (there are 7 Muffler Men in LA); a cowboy muffler man in Gallup, New Mexico; the Lauterbach Muffler Man in Springfield, Illinois, holding an American flag; and, the Harley Davidson Muffler Man outside the Pink Elephant Antique Mall in Livingston, Illinois. But, of course, the most iconic Muffler Man along the route is the Gemini Giant outside of The Launching Pad in Wilmington, Illinois. He is the only space-man version that survives today, named after the 1965 Gemini space program, ready for launch with his space helmet and holding a rocket. Weighing in at 438 pounds and 28-feet- tall, the Gemini Giant is a Route 66 must-see. The Launching Pad was bought by Tully Garrett and Holly Barker last year, and they are dedicated to preserving the giant and restoring the property and eatery to a functioning roadside attraction.

Bright Nights

Giant rocking chairs and spacemen are all well and good during the day, but when the sun went down proprietors needed a new strategy to bring customers in, so they used neon to light up the night. Neon lighting was first demonstrated in 1910 at the Paris Motor Show, using long luminous gas-discharge tubes that contain rarefied neon and other gases, and from there this new and enticing light source took off. The large installations in Times Square popularized neon in America, and by 1940 there were nearly 2,000 shops producing neon signs. The signs required a lot of custom labor, but they could last for years, even decades, without replacement, making this art form a worthwhile investment for businesses. Their dazzling colors and bright luminosity attracted and amazed customers, even during the day, and neon became known as “liquid fire.”

Desert Skies Motel, Gallup, New Mexico.
Photograph courtesy of David Schwartz - Pics on Route 66.

In Route 66’s heyday, businesses were always competing for customers, and neon signs were a way to distinguish a business from its neighbors. But when others saw the success of those signs, the trend spread, and main streets became neon hallways and electric beacons dotted the horizon. When the route’s popularity waned with the introduction of the Interstate, many businesses closed, their neon signs faded and disintegrated. But there are still many spectacular neon signs along the route that have been preserved and still give modern travelers a taste of the bright nights of past decades. Some standouts include Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket and their vintage sign, the unofficial “first stop” on Route 66 heading west from Chicago; the 66 Drive-In Theatre’s sign in Carthage, Missouri; and the famous Meadow Gold Sign in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But the businesses that most favored neon signs were the ones that thrived at night: motels. Eager to draw in tired travelers for the night, motels used neon signs to call customers to a home away from home. Places like The Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri, Boots Court in Carthage, Missouri, and the El Trovatore Motel in Kingman, Arizona, still blaze their neon signs every night, dazzling the retinas and alluring the weary.

The Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri, is an icon along Route 66, and its beautiful vintage sign is a big part of that. The sign was originally installed in 1955 by the Springfield Neon Company. Current owners Ramona and Bob Lehman noticed that the sign had deteriorated over the years and refurbished it in 2010 with grants from the Missouri Route 66 Association, and the Route 66 Corridor Act. Neon Times Company of St. Charles restored the sign, and after a few months of hard work the sign was relighted and back to its former glory. Munger Moss was once part of a neon strip in Lebanon, with Wrink’s Market, the Munger Moss Restaurant, the Forest Manor Motel, and the Starlight Bowling Alley. Today, Ramona believes that the Munger Moss sign is “the most beautiful sign on this highway,” and many travelers agree. Ramona once commented on a documentary that if she had a quarter for every picture taken of the sign, she would be a millionaire. A couple of years ago a guest checked in and took several pictures of the sign. The next day, he went in the office and laid down 4 quarters. When Ramona asked what they were for he replied, “I saw you on a documentary film and I’m trying to help you become a millionaire!” Last year, the Lehman’s installed LED bulbs in the sign, a total of 720 bulbs, so the Munger Moss Motel will keep burning bright for many years to come.

Another standout along the route is the famous Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and their dazzling neon sign, often referred to as the most photographed motel sign on Route 66. The sign was constructed in the mid-1950s to replace a smaller sign and to help the Blue Swallow stand out among a sea of neon (there is a replica of the older 1939 neon art-deco sign at the motel as well). Owner Kevin Mueller notes that at the time of its construction, the “Blue Swallow Motel” sign was the largest neon sign in Tucumcari: “With its unique shape and blinking blue swallow, it was hard to miss along the roadside.” And it’s still just as enticing today, advertising “100% Refrigerated Air.” The sign has been regularly maintained throughout the years, and recently, thanks to donations from visitors and guests, Mueller was able to add a neon olive branch held in the bird’s beak, an accent Lillian Redman (the owner who helped design the original sign) had always dreamt of adding.

The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, repairing their sign.

The Blue Swallow is an old-fashioned family-run operation offering guests a taste of the past, reflecting the nostalgic nature of its sign. Neon signs are rarely used by new businesses today because of the cost and lack of neon artists, but Mueller notes that neon offers a unique experience. “People love the warm glow and soft hum of the neon lights, and there just isn’t anything quite like sitting out in the courtyard on a warm evening, chatting with neighbors, and soaking in the glow of the neon.”

People will be able to bask in the neon glow along Route 66 for a long time to come with many businesses and cities revitalizing the neon industry. The City of Albuquerque has adopted a Central Avenue Neon Design Overlay Zone to promote and encourage neon signs in the city, providing incentives for the refurbishment of existing neon signs and the development of new signs along the route. Tulsa is also in the process of setting up new zoning rules that will allow larger neon signs with the goal of developing a neon sign district to reflect its Route 66 heritage. Johnnie Meier of the New Mexico Route 66 Association spearheaded a project to restore 10 classic neon signs in the state, resulting in the Emmy-winning PBS documentary “Route 66, the Neon Road.”

Whether it was extraordinary sporting events, larger- than-life figurines, or dazzling neon displays, the history of Route 66 advertising is as varied and unique as the route itself, and played a large role in creating the identity of the Mother Road. These advertisements and oddities draw us in as much today as they did when they were first created, and will continue to call to us as long as we hit the open road and continue to answer.

All Muffler Men photographs courtesy of Joel Baker and American Giants.

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