- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2003

RIVERTON, Kan. — Waiting for her roast beef sandwich, Vicki Lawellin stood 595 miles from Chicago, 1,566 miles from Beverly Hills and in a world all its own.

Most everything at Eisler Bros. Old Riverton Store is the same as when it opened in 1925.

“This place hasn’t changed at all,” said Miss Lawellin, 52, a visitor for years. “I didn’t realize so many people from all over the world come.”

Come they do to see Eisler Bros. and other sights along Route 66, “America’s Main Street.”

The legendary highway links Chicago to Los Angeles, stretching 2,448 miles across eight states. Attractions along the way host about 50,000 enthusiasts every year, said Scott Nelson, Eisler Bros. manager and president of Kansas Historic Route 66 Association.

Kansas’ 13.2 miles of the road link Missouri to Oklahoma, the shortest stretch of any state’s share of what John Steinbeck coined the “Mother Road.” The trip begins in the former mining town of Galena, goes to Quaker-rich Riverton and finishes in Baxter Springs, full of Civil War history.

Sights along the way include historic buildings (some vacant, some occupied), houses, farms, antique stores and of course, tourist shops.

“You’re seeing real America, things the way they were in the good old days,” Mr. Nelson said. “It’s like going back in time. You see nice places, you see dumps, you see it all.”

Approved by Congress in 1925, Route 66 was heavily traveled during the first half of the 20th century. The meandering road connected scores of towns, making travel and business more efficient and giving rise to America’s love affair with the automobile. A popular 1960s TV show and the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” made the road part of pop culture.

With the rise of the interstate system, the federal government no longer funded Route 66 by the mid-1980s and stopped putting it on maps. Sanctioned or not, Route 66 isn’t about going places, it’s a destination in itself.

“If someone’s in a hurry to get somewhere, Route 66 is not for you. You’ve got to get out and stop and talk to people,” said Mr. Nelson, 42, who has worked at Eisler Bros. since 1973, when his aunt and uncle bought the establishment.

The quaint store, with an outhouse in the back, has been nominated by the state to be on the National Register of Historic Places. Half of the store features shelves full of cereal, soft drinks, canned goods, toiletries and a deli counter. The other half has every type of Route 66 knickknack imaginable: postcards, shirts and faux sign markers.

Sign markers are so coveted that rather than putting more signs up and taking the chance that they’ll be stolen, the Kansas Route 66 Association paints white Route 66 markers right onto the surface of the road, Mr. Nelson said.

Rainbow Arched Bridge, built in 1923, sits just west of Riverton, and is the only existing bridge of its type on Route 66. Most of the bridges made of steel covered in concrete have since been replaced.

In Baxter Springs, legend has it that Jesse James robbed a bank, now a restaurant called Cafe on the Route. The town also boasts the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum, which chronicles the town’s Civil War and mining history.

Half of all travelers are foreign born, Mr. Nelson said. “You name the country, they’ve been here. You just never know who will show up,” he said.

About a dozen motorcyclists from Switzerland stopped at the Galena Mining and Historical Museum one day over the summer, said volunteer Gene Russell, 80.

Glancing over the museum’s guest book, he saw that that morning’s visitors hadn’t signed in. But past signatures showed guests from England and Germany.

In the early 1980s, Galena residents recognized the route’s popularity and wanted a museum alongside it. They had the building, an old train depot, but it was blocks away. In 1988, the depot was moved and filled with artifacts of Galena’s mining heyday — 1870s to the 1920s — and beyond. Buckets of zinc and lead abound, as do miners’ hats and tools, newspaper, photographs and even a horse-drawn hearse.

Before arriving at the museum, Route 66 winds around Hell’s Half Acre. Now a sparse, bland expanse, the former mine was one of the richest in the world. Route 66 then passes through Galena’s main street, dotted by mostly empty storefronts dating to the early 1900s.

Jordan Moore and his father Rick pulled over near Rainbow Bridge. It had been a day and a half since they left their home in Rockford, Ill. Jordan, 14, became curious about Route 66 after hearing about it on TV.

The Moores have only one week to travel, but don’t plan to rush. They might not reach Los Angeles, about 1,500 miles away, but the road is wide open, said Mr. Moore, 45. “If we don’t make it, we’ll pick up where we left off next time”

• • •

For directions and other information, contact the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association (620/848-3330 or route66.itgo.com/ks66.html). Related Web sites include Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program (www.cr.nps.gov/rt66).

Eisler Bros. Old Riverton Store is located at 7109 SE Highway 66, Riverton, Kans.

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