Route 66 - Hello Kansas, Hello Mater

Only about 13 miles of Route 66 clips the southeast corner of Kansas, but here is where we found the most interesting and entertaining person we met during the whole trip. It is also where Route 66 began to actually meet the vision I had formed of it during all the years I had dreamed of traveling the Mother Road - quiet, serene, full of history, friendly people and quirky characters - the America of my youth; the America I wanted to show my daughter before it is too late.

Kansas is known for being a conservative, no nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone, work-comes-first type of state. As a matter of fact, the whole state of Kansas for years before and after prohibition was dry and until rather recently, state officials were very tough on anyone buying or selling liquor. A few years ago, the state even went to court to stop airlines from serving liquor in Kansas airspace. They lost.

However, back in the harshest of prohibition days, bootleggers were rampant in this little section of Kansas because when escape was needed, there were two state lines close by for them to cross over and into safety. They set up an elaborate system of lookouts and warnings so lawmen could rarely close in before the bootleggers took off. On one occasion, with just a few minutes warning, the owners of a large still had just enough time to dump their brew, mash, and the stills into the river just below Ryan's Bridge. This time, several of the brew masters were arrested, but with no evidence, they were later released without being prosecuted. But when it happened, everyone knew exactly where the evidence had disappeared to. A flock of migrating geese just happened to be downstream from the dumping spot in the river and within an hour, the geese had drank so much sour mash cocktail that their ability to fly had been greatly diminished. They only  managed to get as far as the Route 66 bridge into Riverton where the whole drunk flock crash landed and began honking and staggering all over the bridge. There was not enough room on the small bridge for vehicles to maneuver around the plastered geese who had by now become very aggressive toward any human who tried to herd them off the bridge. Traffic was halted for a while until the geese began to sober up. Eventually they took off heading south in an unusually ragged formation. It was noted that for a number of years, the geese returned to the same spot in the river and stayed for several days, all heads facing upriver as if they were expecting party nectar to come floating down to them again.

Coming from Missouri into Kansas leads you first into Galena, a sleepy, quiet little town of 3,000 people. It is quiet now, but this was once an important center for lead and zinc mining with a population of over 30,000. In the late 1800's, Galena had a "wild west" type reputation with saloons and bawdy houses which stayed open 24 hours per day. The more law-abiding citizens of Empire, a town just north of Galena, didn't want the Galena ruffians coming into their town so they built an 8-foot wooden fence along the town border. The folks in Galena watched the painstaking fence construction for several months and when it was finally finished, burned the entire length of it to the ground the very next night.

Mural which appeared in the movie Cars.
The mines have all played out now and on the early Tuesday afternoon when we pulled into the north end of town, there was not one person in sight and no cars were parked along Main Street. Even the few businesses that remain in downtown Galena were closed.

We crossed over an old concrete-post viaduct above the railroad tracks and made the sharp turn into Galena. What is now Main Street was once known as Red Hot Street and was the location of the 24-hour saloons and houses of ill repute. What first caught our eye was a large mural painted on the wall of a large, empty building which at one time or another was the site of a lumber yard, a Five-and-Dime, and a drug store. On the corner over from the mural building was a large and, at one time, a very ornate home, no doubt a remnant of the day when this town was home to numerous millionaires who made and often lost their fortunes from the area's mines.

This old home was purchased to be restored
and made into a bed-and-breakfast.
Gonna be a lot of work!
Directly across the street was an old Kan-O-Tex gas station with a 1951 International tow truck parked in front. I stopped to take a picture and started to drive on when I noticed the painting on the top of the building, "4 Women on the Route." It was one of the places I had marked on our itinerary as a must stop. I pulled into the drive, walked into the old building and was greeted by Melba Rigg, the self-proclaimed "Mouth from the South" and a nicer, more interesting person you could never want to meet.

4 Women on the Route.
As we walked in, Melba exclaimed, "Hi! Welcome to the home of Tow Tater! Come on in and let me tell you a story..."  The heat outside was oppressive and unfortunately the air inside the building was almost as bad with only a couple of fans to move around the hot air. In her rapid-fire speech with the words coming almost faster than I could hear them, Melba explained the cost of electricity was high and with people opening the door coming in and out all day, she just couldn't afford to run the air conditioner. The inside was crammed with Route 66 t-shirts and souvenirs  for sale. There was also a diner/snack shop, but when I asked if we could get something to eat, Melba explained the grill was broke and she was saving money to get it fixed, but until then, the food area was closed. No matter because the real treasure was Melba herself. Quick to laugh her loud, contagious laugh, making herself the butt of her own jokes, and eyes with so much sparkle they would light up a dark room, it was impossible to not instantly be enamored of her. She kindly offered us bottles of water from an iced cooler, pulled out a thick scrapbook full of pictures and signatures and launched into the story of how the business came to be, the history of the town, and how the writers and producers of the hit movie Cars came into town and used several things they found as inspiration for various scenes and characters. The mural on the building across the street was recreated as a mural in Radiator Springs and the tow truck was the basis for Tow Mater. Because Disney is very protective of it's copyrighted material, Melba explained how they can't refer to their truck as Tow Mater so instead call it Tow Tater.

The "Closed for repairs" Snack Shop.
Listening to Melba was so interesting we pretty much forgot how hot it was. Before leaving, she let us use the restroom with its walls covered in Route 66 maps and told us to take as many pictures as we would like. I wanted to help support the business so we looked at all of the stuff she had for sale, but found it to be a bit too expensive and there wasn't anything that really struck our fancy as something we couldn't live without. I dropped a $10 bill in the candy jar she had set up for tips on her counter and considered it to be well worth it.

Melba telling her stories and an enraptured
Youngest-daughter listening.
After taking pictures, we were heading to our truck when 2 cars full of people pulled up. As we opened the truck's doors to get in, we heard Melba saying to the newcomers, "Hi! Welcome to the home of Tow Tater! Come on in and let me tell you a story..." I hope they bought a lot of stuff or at least left a hefty tip in her candy jar. Melba needs to turn on that air conditioner!

4 Women on the Route w/ Tow Tater.
Youngest-daughter sitting in the real
Tow Mater.

Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
Or go to the first entry of each state: