Route 66 Day Four: Deep Poverty in Missouri

One of many murals in Cuba, Missouri that describe the town's history.

Last night, a friend of mine who grew up in St. Louis put this message on my Facebook page: “welcome to redneck territory.” I found it rude and insensitive – but after having crossed the entire state of Missouri on Route 66, I sadly have to concur. Overwhelmingly, the one thing I saw over and over again was trailer homes. I commented yesterday about the level of poverty from St. Louis to Cuba, but that Cuba – where I stayed last night – seemed to be different. Well, Cuba was the exception to the rule – being one of the few Missouri towns on Route 66 to display fancy murals in the town that give travelers a reason to stop and admire.

After grabbing breakfast in town, I head due west on Route 66 – as I have a long day planned ahead of me with a lot of driving. I pop in the Route 66 CD that I bought from Rich Henry in Staunton, Illinois – and just as the Bobby Troup classic “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” song starts to play, I come across another landmark: the world’s largest Rocking Chair.

World's Largest Rocking Chair - just west of Cuba, MO.

Sure, it’s totally absurd – but it’s exactly those types of kitschy Americana gags that make driving Route 66 so fun, as you get your “kicks” on the Mother Road. Back in Illinois, every town seemed to milk the fact that it was on Route 66 – with historical signs aplenty to lure the gullible tourist. In Missouri, you see a lot less of that – just small town after bland small town, so things like the world’s Biggest Rocking Chair is very rare.

And it may just be because the poverty in Missouri is so acute. For miles and miles as you pass these towns, all you see are decrepit trailer homes – along with an increasing number of churches: Assembly of God, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. You also see an increasing number of cheap adult movie stores – what I found particularly ironic at one point was a porno billboard next to a “Jesus Saves” billboard. All in all, these are not the towns that a traveling tourist would want to stop into – so I just keep on driving through the Ozarks.

Route 66 - amid the rolling hills of the Ozarks.

Oh yeah, the Ozarks … Here’s the real irony of Route 66 in Missouri. While the towns are so much poorer than Illinois, the scenery is rich with rolling hills and lush vegetation. No more bland flat Illinois prairies – this is the Ozarks, with its caves and mountains that paint a great picture for the road traveler. I pop some Bob Dylan to get into the mood, but after a couple CD’s it becomes obvious that a better choice of music is Roy Orbison – the Ozark Hillbilly whose tenor echoes through the hills.

The occasional town is worth stopping, such as Waynesville (the seat of Pulaski County) – but the vast majority are just not enticing. Even Rolla I expected to be more interesting, but all I did was find a Bank of America to collect more cash and then leave. My geeky Google Map printouts that have detailed turn-by-turn directions are far more useful in Missouri than Illinois – because while Missouri does have Historic Route 66 markers, you kind of have to know where they are. At one point, I run into a French tourist who is motorcycling Route 66 and gets lost. I explain to him in French how to turn around, cross the Interstate again, and then find Route 66 over there.

Downtown Springfield: Church + Welfare Office.

It’s now almost 2:00 p.m., and I still haven’t stopped for lunch. But I figure that Springfield, the largest city I will be going through today (and the Birthplace of Route 66) should be a good stop. Springfield has a fun downtown, and I find a place to grab a sandwich – but one thing that struck me as I walk by the central square is this: a church, right next to the state welfare office.

As I have lunch in a local diner, I talk to a waiter about what it’s like living around here – and I tell him how struck I have been at the level of poverty. “Well, we got all kinds,” he said. “We’ve got the trash, and then the filthy rich.” Of course, I haven’t really seen the filthy rich along Route 66 – but it tells me the gap between rich and poor is pretty severe out here. I was expecting Route 66 to be depressing in Oklahoma or Texas, where the Interstate by-passed communities that became ghost-towns overnight. But what I didn’t expect was to see the sheer number of trailer homes that dot the landscape. Occasionally, you see something that may be a Route 66 tourist landmark – only to find it closed, or taken out of business.

Jasper County Courthouse in Carthage, MO.

After a longer-than-expected drive from Springfield to Carthage, I decide to grab coffee in town. Carthage is the county seat of Jasper County, and the town square (complete with its courthouse) is impressive. Everything is exactly what it was like in the 1950’s, and the antique stores surely have some great deals. But still, you don’t see it as the kind of place that attracts tourists – and it’s sad to see the level of poverty being what it is in these parts …

It’s now 4:30 p.m., and I’m eager to get to my hotel for the night – in Baxter Springs, Kansas. Route 66 only goes through 13 miles of Kansas (after Missouri & before Oklahoma), so I decided to spend the night there – after a whole day of Missouri. I pop in my Marvin Gaye CD to keep going, as Route 66 traverses the underwhelming towns of Carterville, Webb City – and even Joplin. Given that Joplin is one of the cities quoted in Bobby Troup’s Route 66 song, I would have expected more.

Rainbow Bridge, on Route 66 in Kansas

Shortly after Joplin, Route 66 crosses the state line into Kansas – as it moseys through Galena, which is likewise depressed and has seen better days. But further down the road, I find a real treat: the Rainbow Bridge, the last covered bridge of its kind along Route 66 and I step out for a moment to get some air and take pictures. I then get back in the car, and proceed to my destination for the night: Baxter Springs.

More than any Route 66 town I have seen today, Baxter Springs is more catered towards tourists – with hotels and restaurants. I’m staying at the Red Brick Inn, located inside a building that once housed a bank that Jesse James robbed back in 1874. The Hotel has a cafe on the first floor, but it’s closed … so at the owner’s suggestion, I take a short drive to the Weston Cafe for dinner. There, the charming waitress and the local customers charm me about what a great town they live in – and I know I made the right decision to stay here for the night …

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9 Responses to “Route 66 Day Four: Deep Poverty in Missouri”

  1. nafiss griffis Says:

    What a real treat indeed that jewel of a bridge on the venerable Route 66, I just admire the photo. Bernard Henry Levy remarked the same stunning poverty few years ago while touring the U.S. to write Vertigo. It is amazing how our politicians and many think tanks fail to admit the truth of heartland America. I think they should emulate Paul Hogarth and drive through the country to see and understand reality. I can hear the roar of the engine dialoguing with the rolling hills of ozarks. Keep the drive Paul.

  2. Gina Says:

    I find it absolutely fascinating that the poor French guy found someone who speaks French in the deserted plains of Missouri 🙂

    • Loren Says:

      Much of Missouri was settled by the French. My hometown and the school I went to (Gravois Mills and Versailles) are French names. Although finding someone who actually speaks French (or even uses the correct French pronunciation of the towns) is indeed a very rare thing.

  3. My Top Ten Insights from Traveling Route 66 « Paul Hogarth’s Personal Blog Says:

    […] in St. Louis(3) Missouri’s Poverty Was Overwhelming: I had never been to Missouri, but the state’s poverty as you drive through the Ozarks was truly depressing. Trailer homes line all of Route 66, with […]

  4. Paul Hogarth: My Top 10 Insights From Traveling Route 66 | Golden News Says:

    […] Missouri’s Poverty Was Overwhelming I had never been to Missouri, but the state’s poverty as you drive through the Ozarks was truly depressing. Trailer homes line all of Route 66, with […]

  5. Jane Reed Says:

    Please explore http://www.cubamomurals.com and http://www.cubamochamber.com for a broader view of our town. Many of us live in very nice homes, not trailers. You will find diverse interests, economic levels, skills, and aptitudes in our town.

  6. Loren Says:

    I was raised in the Missouri Lake of the Ozarks area. This is the part of the US that loves Sara Palin, Rush Limbaugh (who is from Missouri) and voted for GW Bush twice. The great film Winter’s Bone could almost be a documentary of the endless poverty endured in the Ozarks for generation after generation.

    You are right about how increadibly beutiful the land is in the midst of never ending poverty and hopelessness. I have a video of the beauty and poverty there at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avq3-lBgyzs or a longer version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTKWqKTGwTg

    I would also like to address the Meth Epidemic that has raced across huge sections of the rural Midwest America. I was raised in the Ozarks from 1963 until 2009 and I watched the moonshiners lose out as Sunday Blue Laws and Dry County Laws were voted down or abandoned. Then marijuana became THE big cash crop that survived and thrived for many years until “Daddy” Bush’s anti-marihuana laws poured in tons of money to local law enforcement and new laws confiscating lands forced the richer growers indoors. It was finally in the mid 1990s when you began to see meth force out ALL the remaining marihuana farmers and moonshiners. Counties began to get in meth dealing Sheriffs and the old games were OVER. In my Ozark County (Morgan) during the late 1990s a deputy sheriff’s home mysteriously exploded and then was investigated by the FBI. I watched as the marijuana become hard to find and evil Meth take over.

    The people of the Ozarks have always been clannish, hostile to outsiders and proudfully ignorant and primitive in their opinions of society and politics. Those traits are nothing new or something that manifested due to Meth. But the introduction of Meth has struck down many good men and women who might have made the culture a tiny bit more tolerant or hopeful.

    But along with the continuing devastation of multi generational poverty and vastly inferior schools there is also a great beauty in the land and the people of the region. Many an unbelievably gifted musician lived and died in those hills never having recognition from anyone outside of the hills.

    It is a part of America that is VERY often overlooked because many are (rightfully) ashamed that this sort of 3rd world poverty exits in the US. I personally feel that the Federal US government needs to inject a LOT more funding and oversight of the rural school districts in order to overcome the generations of prideful ignorance that governs the mindset of many born into that rural America culture.

  7. Loren Says:

    I wanted to also thank you for your blog. I enjoyed your Route 66 adventures.

  8. Scarlett Loomas Says:

    My mother-in-law told me about this blog the other day and about how you were stunned over the poverty witnessed in Missouri along Route 66/I-44 corridor. I commented that you hadn’t even been to the poorest parts! You should visit the Bootheel. There are days when I will be driving around, (I’m a sales rep), and feel like I’ve entered a time portal to 1933. I can hear Jimmie Rodgers on the Victrola right now…

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