The Mother Road's Hometown

Route 66 experts Emily Priddy and Ron Warnick take a tour of Tulsa.

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Kelly Killion, owner of Tie-Dyes of Tulsa, sells tie-dyed T-shirts, hats, skirts and socks from her shop next to Route 66.
Photo Credit: Emily Priddy

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The smell of patchouli incense greets us as we walk into Tie-Dyes of Tulsa on a wintry afternoon.

A cat with fur soft as a chinchilla’s saunters in from somewhere in the back, and we hear a soft, hollow clatter as his owner parts a bead curtain to follow him into the front room of a two-story house at 3443 E. 11th Street, otherwise known as Route 66.

In 1993, Kelly Killion celebrated her college graduation by swapping a pair of Grateful Dead tickets for the equipment and supplies she needed to open her own business.

Skipping that concert became Killion’s ticket to more than 15 years’ worth of freedom from boring meetings, overbearing supervisors and uncooperative office equipment.

Since 1995, Killion and her Volkswagen Vanagon-turned-art car have been colorful fixtures on Route 66 in Tulsa.

During that time, Killion estimates she has tie-dyed well over 100,000 T-shirts, hats, hoodies, scarves and even sports bras. Customers have welcomed newborns with colorful onesies, celebrated children’s birthdays with tie-dye parties and even mourned a death by burying a loved one in a custom-dyed T-shirt from Killion’s shop.

As we peruse the vivid rainbow of creations in Killion’s front room, my eye falls on two pairs of athletic socks. They are $5 each; I buy one pair to wear and another to turn into a sock monkey. This latter idea delights Killion, who makes me promise to show her the finished product.

While Killion’s business was born a decade after the last stretch of the road was decommissioned, her entrepreneurial spirit is a testimonial to the fact that Route 66 is alive and well in Tulsa.

Tulsa, more than any other city on Route 66, can lay claim to being the Mother Road’s hometown.

The reason is a man named Cyrus Stevens Avery, a Tulsa resident and county commissioner, who, in 1925, was appointed to the board responsible for designating and marking federal highways. Avery, a staunch supporter of the Good Roads Movement –which advocated the creation of more and better highways – was instrumental in choosing both the path and the numeric designation for Route 66. His role in the road’s history earned him the unofficial title “Father of Route 66.”

U.S. 66 was commissioned on Nov. 11, 1926. On a winter afternoon more than 82 years later, we look out a window at the traffic passing by on the old highway as we chase off the cold with a fiery lunch at The Right Wing on 11th Street.

Wings come in five flavors at The Right Wing: garlic, barbecue, mild, medium and nitro.

Ron orders a chicken strip sandwich; shivering, I opt for nitro strips, which are doused with a cayenne-based sauce that gives them a spicy but flavorful kick that opens my sinuses and drives the January chill from my bones.

Our bellies full, we head downtown and a large, domed building comes into view. Route 66 shimmies briefly onto 10th Street. The imposing structure we see is the First Church of Christ, Scientist, one of five historic churches within sight of Route 66 in downtown Tulsa. The other four are Holy Family Cathedral, First Christian Church, Boston Avenue United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church.

Route 66 changes its name from 11th Street to Southwest Boulevard as it heads across the Arkansas River and into the old working-class neighborhoods of West Tulsa and Red Fork, home to the famous Sue Bland oil well and the refineries that drove Tulsa’s economy during the oil boom years, which largely coincided with the heyday of Route 66.

Although urban renewal destroyed many of the historic structures along Southwest Boulevard, a few treasures remain: an old chicken hatchery at the corner of Southwest Boulevard and 22nd Street has been converted to a church; Howard Park still provides a shady spot for a roadside picnic at Southwest Boulevard and 25th Street; and efforts are under way to restore the remnants of downtown Red Fork, a block-long strip of Plains Commercial buildings.

Across the street from Red Fork is the popular Ollie’s Station Restaurant, where diners can watch model trains run around the ceiling on miniature tracks as they munch on fried chicken and some of the best cinnamon rolls on Route 66.

A 1916 bridge, visible to the right of Southwest Boulevard as we cross the Arkansas River, once carried Route 66 into southwest Tulsa. Now closed, the Cyrus Avery Route 66 Memorial Bridge is the centerpiece of a plaza honoring Avery’s memory and connection to the highway.

The road was realigned several times over the years. Its most popular path through Tulsa follows 11th Street and Southwest Boulevard, but its earliest routing took it north to Admiral Place from Mingo Road to Lewis Avenue, and it is on this pathway that we find Rose Hill Cemetery – the final resting place of the Father of Route 66.

Avery’s grave is marked by an unassuming tombstone that makes no mention of his place in history. No matter; the entire road is a monument to Avery’s vision, and its continuing popularity gives him a kind of immortality.

After paying our respects at Avery’s grave, we have to make a decision about dinner: burgers or chili?

If we opt for chili, we’ll head to Ike’s Chili House. Ike’s began dishing up bowls of rich, meaty chili to hungry Tulsans in 1908 – 18 years before Route 66 was commissioned, and a year after Oklahoma officially became a state. More than a century later, it remains one of Tulsa’s best-loved eateries.

Chili sounds good, but after our spicy lunch, we decide to take it easy – if you can call a quadruple-decker cheeseburger “taking it easy” – with dinner at Hank’s Hamburgers.

In a city full of tough competitors, Hank’s, a Tulsa institution since 1949, serves what we consider to be the best burgers in town. Our favorite is the Big Okie: a 16-ounce behemoth consisting of four quarter-pound meat patties layered with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickle and onion. Diners need a knife, fork and enormous appetite to get around the monster, but it’s worth the effort.

We cap our meal with a couple of homemade peanut butter balls, which are served from a glass candy jar under a sign that reads: “We hate to brag, but these are the best thing you’ve ever eaten.”

On a road as well blessed with delicacies as Route 66, that’s a bold statement, but as we sink our teeth into the sweet, buttery-rich candy, we’re tempted to agree with it.

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