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Book review: “Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery” October 28, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Highways, History, People.
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Some may assume Cyrus Avery became known as “The Father of Route 66″ simply because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when the highway became designated and federally certified in 1926.

But as Susan Croce Kelly’s well-researched new biography shows, Avery’s involvement in Route 66’s birth and its rise to worldwide fame was anything but an accident. The book — the first solely devoted to him — lays out convincingly how Avery’s talent, his background, his drive and his confidence all were crucial to the Mother Road eventually becoming a legend.

One section of “Father of Route 66″ (288 pages, hardback, University of Oklahoma Press, e-book available) signals Avery’s crucial role to the road. Shortly after the founding of the U.S. 66 Highway Association — for which Avery became vice president and, later, president — Avery started calling the highway the “Main Street of America.” Advocates for U.S. 40 and the Roosevelt-Midland Trail also used the nickname, and the Lincoln Highway probably had it, too. But because of Avery’s persistence, the “Main Street of America” tag stuck to 66.

Outside of Tulsa, Cyrus Avery probably would have been little more than a footnote in history books if Route 66 hadn’t started its revival during the early 1990s. By that time, Avery had died almost 30 years before, and he said his proudest accomplishment was not Route 66, but shepherding the building of a 50-mile pipeline from the Spavinaw Creek to give Tulsa a much more reliable water supply. And despite Avery’s growing posthumous stature — including an elaborate statue on Route 66 in his honor — even the biggest Route 66 experts were unsure where Avery was buried until I tracked it down a few years ago.

Croce Kelly was an ideal author to tackle a book on Avery’s life, as she and photographer Quinta Scott published the essential “Route 66: The Highway and Its People” in 1990. Still, she had a challenge: By the time she announced the project, Avery had been dead for a half-century. Save for grandchildren and a few other folks, barely any people remembered Avery when he was alive.

Fortunately, the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa owned a substantial archive of Avery’s papers, and the man himself was so much in the public eye that plenty of material was found in the Tulsa World and other newspaper databases. Croce Kelly unearthed a lot of verified material about Avery and weaved it into the smooth and easy-reading narrative in “Father of Route 66.” In the occasions Croce Kelly speculates about what happened during a point Avery’s history, at least it’s well-informed speculation.

Avery was born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, but in his early teens moved 1,200 miles to northeast Oklahoma in a covered wagon when his father sought new opportunities after a deep recession in 1873. (Croce Kelly argues convincingly that Avery’s arduous journey helped convince him early about the importance of good roads.) The family settled in a dilapidated former homestead of Confederate Army general and Cherokee Indian Stand Watie.

Avery earned a bachelor’s degree at a teachers college but soon found himself adept in buying and selling real estate in Oklahoma — especially in the Tulsa area. His real-estate business put him in touch with many influential people in the state and gave him a sense of what the region needed to thrive.

One of Avery’s gifts was his ability to relate to anyone. It was said he could converse just as amiably with an oil tycoon as with a blue-collar worker or a small child.

He also proved to be an engaging public speaker. The Commercial Club — a forerunner to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce — quickly grasped his speechmaking skills and made Avery its primary public face. Avery also owned a farm on the edge of town where he often invited out-of-town guests for a meal and a few whiskeys to sell an idea or talk over how to improve Tulsa.

One of those passions on how to improve the city was to shore up its chronically muddy highways and streets. He proved to be an ideal advocate in the better-roads movement that was burgeoning nationwide. He brought the first split-log drags to Oklahoma in 1907 and paid several Tulsa County farmers $1 a mile to grade the roads after each rain. He directed the planting of sweet clover near the roads to better hold together the soil and reduce erosion; that clover still can be seen growing near Tulsa County’s rural roads.

During the early teens, he became a booster of the Ozark Trail — a predecessor of U.S. 66. Avery successfully lobbied in 1916 for a bond issue to build the 11th Street Bridge over the Arkansas River. The bridge later carried Route 66 and stands today. He advocated for the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Through it all, it seemed he attended dozens — perhaps hundreds — of meetings over the decades on how to improve roads in the nation and his adopted home base of Tulsa County.

During the 1920s, Avery overhauled the Oklahoma State Highway Department by eschewing cronyism and hiring qualified employees to improve roads. (He later was fired, but Avery had the last laugh when that governor was impeached and removed from office for incompetence.)

The irony about his “Father of Route 66″ tag was that infighting between states in early 1926 nearly sunk the landmark agreement that produced numbered federal highways. Kentucky officials quarreled over the placement of U.S. 60, which Avery wanted for his Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway. Aware a landmark roads agreement was in peril, Avery compromised and accepted U.S. 66 for his road instead. Avery might have made that decision pragmatically for the greater good, but one also suspects he saw the marketing potential for “66” was well.

Avery’s involvement in improving Tulsa wasn’t limited to roads. In addition to that water line, he shepherded the development of Tulsa International Airport and the enormous Mohawk Park. He served as president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce for a time. Although he nearly was financially ruined by the Great Depression, he remained active in local boosterism well into his late 80s.

And Avery seemed like a genuinely good guy. He ran Red Cross relief efforts for thousands of homeless Greenwood residents after the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Avery also repeatedly was on the right side of history in clashes with the Ku Klux Klan, which ran much of the state at the time. Despite being offered a proposal from the Oklahoma Legislature that would have improved roads, he turned it down because the same bill would have prohibited black people from voting. Avery occasionally was accused of corruption, but those allegations never were credible. The only obvious direct benefit from his better-roads efforts was his building a gas station, motel and the Old English Inn cafe on a busy Admiral Place street in Tulsa, which later became Route 66.

Thanks to popular culture — Bobby Troup’s perennially covered “Route 66,” the “Route 66″ television drama and now Disney-Pixar’s “Cars” movie — and Route 66’s own colorful history, the Main Street of America has arguably become the world’s most famous highway. And, as “Father of Route 66″ shows, that highway was very fortunate to have Cyrus Avery as its early champion to lay the foundation of its rise.

Highly recommended.

Former owner of Club Cafe dies October 24, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, People, Restaurants.
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Ron Chavez, 78, a former owner of the long-closed Club Cafe in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, who later became noted as a writer and poet, died Oct. 15 in Albuquerque, reported the Taos News.

His daughter, Sonia Valdez, told the newspaper he died of complications from diabetes and a stroke. The family declined to give details about his services or burial.

The newspaper provided some background on Chavez’s early days:

Chávez was born June 18, 1936 in the valley of Puerto de Luna on the banks of the Pecos River near Santa Rosa in southern New Mexico.

“When I was 6 years old I traveled Route 66 to California straight out of my village of Puerto de Luna in 1942 when my father went to work in the shipyards building warships. There, I befriended the owner of the corner grocery store who charmed me with his stories of how he had fought with (Emiliano) Zapata in Mexico. I am captivated with Zapata to this day,” Chávez said in an article published in Tempo (September 2013).

In Santa Rosa he was the owner of the famous Route 66 Club Café. During that time, Chávez and his café enjoyed fame in major media, which included books, television, magazines and newspapers, according to an online bio. He was known as the “Route 66 Storyteller.”

Chavez owned the Club Cafe for nearly 20 years after he saved it from closing during the 1970s, according to an archived article in the Chicago Tribune. Club Cafe was known since 1935 for its sourdough biscuits, New Mexican cuisine and its trademark “smiling Fat Man” logo on signs and billboards.

The restaurant closed in 1992, with Chavez mostly blaming it on the opening of a McDonald’s up the road. After fitful and unsuccessful attempts to reopen the eatery, the remnants of Club Cafe and its signs were slated to be demolished this year.

Chavez eventually found himself reciting and writing poetry in Taos in both English and Spanish. Many of his stories and poems were collected in two books — “Winds of Wildfire” and “Time of Triumph” (my review of the latter here) — and were published in numerous magazines.

Here’s a video from 2011 of his poem-recital style:

Chavez said he often was inspired by delving into New Mexico’s centuries-old cultures of its Native American and Hispanic residents.

(Image of Ron Chavez in 2007 by santiagosintaos via Flickr)

A visit to Cuba Fest October 24, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Events, People.
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Frank Kocevar, the former co-owner of Historic Seligman Sundries, took his video camera to Cuba Fest this month in Cuba, Missouri, and chatted to a few folks there.

There might be a few folks you recognize.

In case you missed it, Kocevar and his wife Lynn recently sold Historic Seligman Sundries in Seligman, Arizona, to a couple from nearby Flagstaff, Arizona. Frank had said at the time he wanted to do a little more traveling on the Mother Road, and it appears he’s doing so.

Ariston Cafe put up for sale October 19, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in People, Restaurants.
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The landmark Ariston Cafe, located on old Route 66 in Litchfield, Illinois, and owned by the same family for 90 years, has been put up for sale for $1.2 million.

The restaurant was listed on an online real-estate site here by Jim Simpson and Shannon Simpson Hall of Century 21 in Litchfield.

Ariston co-owner Nick Adam, reached by phone Sunday, confirmed the decision to put the restaurant up for sale came about six weeks ago, but not without “a lot of tears. It was an emotional decision.”

“It’s time to sit back,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 48 years. But it’s definitely bittersweet. It was a difficult decision to make. I’m hoping some Route 66 aficionado can take it over. We’ve met so many wonderful people over the years.”

Adam, 76, insisted his decision to put the restaurant on the block is not health-related. But he noted running a restaurant is “a very demanding business. It’s hard to raise a family with that.”

On a related note, Nick Adam said Paul Adam, a third-generation manager of the Ariston, is not interested in taking over because of the time demands. “He’s a stay-at-home dad when he’s not here,” he said. “He wants to try something different.”

The listing includes the restaurant’s old-school counter seats and wooden booths that have been lovingly maintained over the years. The restaurant seats 200 and, according to the listing, generates $1.3 million in annual sales.

The restaurant also is almost directly across the street from the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center.

The Ariston started before Route 66 existed, in Carlinville, Illinois, which wound up being on the original alignment of the Mother Road in that region. The Ariston moved to Litchfield in 1935, a few years after Route 66 was realigned there.

The Ariston was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and was inducted into the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame in 1992.

(Hat tip to Peter Stork; images of the Ariston Cafe by Larry Myhre and John Hartnup via Flickr)

Co-founder of Manhattan Transfer dies October 17, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Music, People.
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Tim Hauser, a co-founder of the Manhattan Transfer jazz vocal quartet in 1969 and the only original member still with the group, died at age 72 this week, reported JazzTimes and other media outlets.

The cause of death was not disclosed, but a post through the group’s Facebook page confirmed his passing.

We spent more than 40 years together singing and making music, traveling the world, and sharing so many special moments throughout our lives… It’s incomprehensible to think of this world without him.
We join his loving wife, Barb, his beautiful children, his family, and the rest of the world in mourning the loss of our dear friend and partner in song.
Love,
Janis, Cheryl and Alan

For those of you with tickets to our upcoming shows, we will continue to tour as scheduled and continue to share Tim’s incredible legacy…

The group — influenced by doo-wop, swing, New Orleans R&B and 1960s girl-group harmonies — was signed to Atlantic Records in 1975. Their biggest hit was “Boy from New York City,” which reached the Top 10 of the pop charts in 1981.

The Manhattan Transfer won 10 Grammy Awards, including one for  Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo or Group in 1982 for its version of Bobby Troup’s “Route 66.” The song remained a mainstay in their performances for decades. Here’s a performance of it from 2008:

The Manhattan Transfer was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.

JazzTimes included this background on Hauser:

Born in Troy, N.Y., Dec. 12, 1941, Hauser grew up in towns on the New Jersey shore, and began his singing career in Asbury Park at age 15 with a doo-wop group called the Criterions that once performed for the legendary disc jockey Alan Freed. In college Hauser sang with other vocal outfits, including one folk aggregation that included future hitmaker Jim Croce. Hauser served in the Air Force beginning in 1964 and took jobs in advertising upon his discharge, before starting the Manhattan Transfer in 1969.

The Asbury Park Press passed along the tale of the moment that changed Hauser’s life — a Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers show in Asbury Park in 1956. Lymon had asked for him directions to the dressing room; Hauser was able to oblige because he went to Boy Scout Jamborees at the venue. That led to this moment:

Hauser accompanied Lymon and the Teenagers to the dressing room where they rehearsed.

“They sang ‘I Promise to Remember’ a cappella and I was maybe 18 inches from them if not less sitting there — I could literally reach out and touch them,” Hauser said. “I swear that was my turning point. That was God’s way of saying, ‘Here’s your gig, son and if you don’t get it, it’s not my fault.’ “

(Image of Tim Hauser in 2012 by Federico Ugolini via Flickr)

Former trooper tells about experiences in Mojave Desert October 15, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in History, People.
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A former officer with the California Highway Patrol has published a book about his experiences during the 1940s in the Mojave Desert — much of it on Route 66 — in a memoir.

L.A. “Buzz” Banks has published “Policing the Mojave Desert,” mining his stories from the time the highway patrol assigned him to Victorville, California, as a traffic-control officer in 1941.

According to a news release Monday from the publisher, Lulu:

Banks joined the CHP at a time when officers were expected to be on their own – resources were limited, technical support was virtually nonexistent, and officers relied on their common sense and their own judgment.

This collection of 30 vignettes recounts memorable, true incidents from Banks’ early experiences as a CHP officer. He honed his writing skills writing accident reports, his diary and published magazine articles. Recognizing the value of his unique experiences, he set out to share them in this unique new book.

Encounters that emerge in “Policing the Old Mojave Desert,” introduce readers to a famous WWII general, an iconic test pilot, a deranged doctor, a bizarre German spy, a sharpshooting sheriff and a kind baker, to name a few.

The book is available as an e-book for Nook e-readers or apps for $2.99. The book also comes in a Kindle version. A paperback version ranges from $10 to $12.

A visit to the Ariston Cafe October 11, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in History, People, Restaurants.
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Continuing with his Genuine Route 66 Life video series, KC Keefer sat down with Paul Adam, a third-generation manager for the historic Ariston Cafe on Route 66 in Litchfield, Illinois.

This video comes out during the restaurant’s 90th anniversary. It started a couple of years before Route 66 existed in Carlinville, Illinois, which wound up on the original alignment of the Mother Road in that region. The Ariston moved to Litchfield in 1935, a few years after Route 66 was moved there.

If you do go to the Ariston, try to snag one of the old-school wooden booths. If those are full, the old-school counter seats will do.

It’s a genuine landmark in central Illinois that’s found favor with locals and tourists.

(Image of the Ariston Cafe by Alan Berning via Flickr)

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