When I was a boy during the late 1940s, my friends and I loved to count the wide variety of license plates on cars passing along Route 66 near my home in Oklahoma City. They came from all over the country and Canada.
Now, with nearly 400 miles of Route 66 protected in Oklahoma for its legendary and historical role in America's development, visitors come from every continent except Antarctica to get their "kicks" on Route 66. That is clear from a report by the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton.
Of the record number of 33,000 museum visitors in 2009, 35 percent came from 23 other countries, said Pat Smith, museum director for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
These include Canada, Mexico and Australia, plus 10 countries in Europe, four in South America, four in Asia, and two in Africa.
"This is a tremendous tribute to the Clinton community," said Bob Blackburn, director of the Historical Society. "The Friends of the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, a population of about 10,000, raised more than $200,000 to help establish the museum in 1995. They have remained a strong financial partner, operating a gift shop and collecting admission fees."
The Route 66 Museum attracts international travelers primarily because the historic road is a "symbol of American history," said Smith.
In talking daily with visitors from around the world, she said they associate the real American experience with Route 66 for five main reasons:
Route 66 was started in 1926 and extended 2,400 miles from Chicago through Oklahoma City to Los Angeles. The road began to decline with the growth of interstate highways starting in 1956.
The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum features eight exhibit galleries reflecting six decades of "Main Street of America." Visitors enjoy seeing vehicles, listening to music and viewing exhibits with artifacts, graphics and videos on legendary lodges, restaurants, diners, garages and curio shops.
They hear songs such as "Get Your Kicks" by Asleep at the Wheel, "Will Rogers Highway" by Woody Guthrie, "In the Mood" by Glenn Miller and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley. They can shop for signs, books, videos, clothing, toys, games and other mementos.
Visitors also can enjoy the Valentine Diner, which was moved from near Shamrock, Texas, to the museum grounds in 1964. It was restored by Virgil Smith, Pat's husband, and features red stools around an L-shaped counter.
As one visitor from the United Kingdom told Smith: "Celebrating my 60th birthday traveling Route 66 ï¿½ an amazing journey. Loving every minute of it. Well done America."
Max Nichols writes a monthly column for the Oklahoma Historical Society.