History Museum in Springfield Square Opens Route 66 Exhibit

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Dozens of photographs, vintage menus and even a mason jar full of barbecue sauce make up the History museum on the square last show.

“Order! The Restaurants of Route 66” opened Wednesday and will continue until Sunday, November 6 at the History Museum, located at 154 Park Central Square.

The special exhibit features a variety of restaurants that have welcomed, and some continue to welcome, travelers along Route 66 to Springfield.

One of the permanent galleries of the History Museum is “Birthplace of Route 66.” Museum curator Joan Hampton-Porter said she was able to use many photos and artifacts from the museum’s archives for the special exhibit. Additionally, the museum has worked with local agencies, including Missouri State University Special Collections and University Archives.

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“Everyone thinks of drive-ins and diners, but they forget about things like fine dining, and so we wanted to let people reminisce about some of the great, old restaurants, many of which are no longer there, and just give a nice retrospective,” Hampton-Porter said.

This foodie space at the show is a Hampton-Porter favorite, especially the menus at establishments like the colonial hotel. The now-demolished building was constructed at 205 S. Jefferson Ave. in 1907 and served as the main gathering space during its heyday.

Colonial hotel approx.  1908.

Other gastronomic artifacts include porcelain from the Kentwood Arms Hotel, on loan from the State of Missouri. The building, located at 700 Saint-Louis Street, was built in 1926 and is now one of the university’s residence halls, Kentwood Hall. The hotel was known for its Crystal Dining Room, which was often hired out for dances, banquets, and political meetings.

“One of the things people don’t always think about is African American travelers, business owners,” Hampton-Porter said. “Although Graham’s Rib station was not immediately on Route 66, it was very popular and important to the local community and travelers.”

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Opened in 1932, Graham’s Rib Station was a popular Springfield restaurant for nearly 60 years, located at the corner of Chestnut Expressway and Washington Avenue.

The exhibit includes a Graham’s menu, a bottle of barbecue sauce and some photos of the restaurant’s interior. A few floors up, in the permanent “Birthplace of Route 66” gallery, visitors can see Graham’s original neon sign.

The history museum in the square announced it had received a donation from the neon sign hanging outside Graham's Rib station.

Other restaurants featured in the exhibit include A&W, Steak ‘n Shake, and Red’s Giant Hamburg.

One piece that Hampton-Porter is particularly excited about is a painting of Steak ‘n Shake by Robert Eugene Smith. She said the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes this is the painting’s first public display.

A Robert E. Smith painting of Steak 'n Shake is one of the pieces on display at the History Museum on the Square's latest exhibit,

Smith was a local artistknown for his many murals in Springfield, including the one featured on the side of the building at the corner of South Campbell Avenue and West Walnut Street downtown.

“Order It! The Restaurants of Route 66” is the first of five exhibits that are part of the museum’s exhibit. “The Route 66 series.” The series will end in 2026 for the 100th anniversary of Route 66.

This Robert E. Smith mural is located on Campbell Avenue just south of Walnut Street in downtown Springfield.

“I think this exhibit is so unique in that we’ve always had big, sweeping exhibits to try to cover everything and this one really goes all the way,” said the museum’s executive director emeritus, John Sellars. “It really set the tone for what we’re going to do over the next four years, so when we come back with a global exhibition, which will be linked to our gallery on the fifth floor, it will be more invigorating.”

Future exhibit themes have not been decided, but Hampton-Porter said she envisioned hotels and gas stations along Route 66.

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The History Museum in the square is looking for new artifacts, photos and stories to add to the series. People who have any to share should contact the museum at 417-831-1976.

Admission to the museum is $16 for adults, $13 for seniors, military, and students, $10 for children 4-12, and free for children under 3. The museum recognizes groups of more than 10 people with an adult rate of $13.

The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Free parking lots are located at the corner of Olive Street and Boonville Avenue.

The History Museum on the Square dates from 1975, with the original name, the Historical Museum of the Bicentenary. At that time, the museum was located at 311 College Street. Over the years, the museum has moved and changed its name.

In 2008 the museum moved to its current downtown location and in 2019 the renovated space opened. In 2020, the museum was named “Best New Attraction for 2019” by USA Today.

Greta Cross is the current affairs reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. Follow her on Twitter and instagram @gretacrossphoto. Story idea? Email him at [email protected]

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