Movie Magic Along Route 66
You say tomato, and I say Tuh Mater.
By Bill Langer
Mater: My name is Mater.
Lightning McQueen: Mater?
Mater: Yeah, like tuh-mater, but without the “tuh.”
From the Pixar/Disney movie ‘Cars’
We resume our journey along Historic Route 66 at Joplin, Mo. Joplin is located in the eastern part of the tri-state lead zinc-mining district of southwestern Missouri, southeastern Kansas, and northeastern Oklahoma.
Lead zinc ores occur together in the district, but production originally was confined to lead because it could be smelted in homemade furnaces. The production of zinc rapidly increased during the early 1870s following the construction of a smelter in Kansas. Ultimately, zinc became the most important mineral resource in the district.
By the turn of the century, mining had brought wealth to the area, some of which was invested in the local infrastructure. In 1904, historian N.A. Allison wrote that several roads in the area had been improved using waste rock from the mines (referred to as chat) that “forms a solid cement-like surface which will endure of a score of years.” He added, “Besides affording easy transit for the people…these roads give the country an appearance of tidiness much above what was formerly seen.” Even into the 1950s, the region annually shipped 3 to 5 million tons of chat for use in railroad ballast, concrete, and asphalt.
During 1924, at the peak of mining, there were more than 11,000 miners in the district. About three times as many more people supported the miners. Mining began to dwindle during the Great Depression, and a price reduction for lead and zinc following World War II resulted in the closure of many of the mines and loss of population. Those who stayed in the district turned to agriculture, dairying, ranching, and…tourism.
During the early 1950s, just about the same time that the region hit the bottom of the mining industry, Americans took to the roads. Route 66 became the main highway for vacationers heading to Los Angeles. This increase in tourism spawned all kinds of roadside attractions, including tourist camps, restaurants, curio shops, and whatever else the tourists needed. Route 66 was even the site of the first drive-through restaurant; Red’s Giant Hamburg (the sign was too small for the “er”) back in Springfield, Mo.
Let’s motor over to Kansas. Old Route 66 zigzags through the state as it follows section line roads. The 13.2-mile sojourn through Kansas is the shortest of any state. Short as it is, there is something here I’d like you to see; something I want to share with my grandkids. The first town we reach is Galena. As we drive through town, we will see the 1951 International Harvester L-170 boom truck that inspired the character ‘Mater’ in the movie ‘Cars.’ The grandkids have to love that. And for us grownups, that boom truck once used to lift equipment from mine shafts in and around Cherokee County, Kan. Pretty darn cool.
For those who prefer TV over the movies, we will follow Route 66 south to Quapaw, Okla. It was mentioned in a 1976 episode of the television show M*A*S*H. B.J. Hunnicutt’s father-in-law was a farmer there.
Unfortunately, the economic boost from Route 66 was rather short lived. During 1957, the Will Rogers Turnpike, designated Interstate 44 in 1958, was completed and bypassed Galena and Quapaw. These two towns, and their neighboring towns, became nearly forgotten by the rest of the world, just like Radiator Springs, Mater’s hometown.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business. He can be reached at Bill_Langer@hotmail.com