John T. Woodruff: Linking Springfield to the Main Street of America

John T. Woodruff is a name that’s well known around Springfield, Missouri for a variety of reasons, but his contributions to Route 66 have been underestimated for years. While Cyrus Avery has received the title of “Father of Route 66,” Woodruff’s contributions to the creation of Route 66 are far less known. We know Springfield as the birthplace of Route 66, but we may overlook how Woodruff made this possible.

John T. Woodruff’s upbringing

Woodruff’s life began in a log cabin during 1868 in Crawford County, Missouri. He spent the first portion of his life in relative poverty before getting his start as a lawyer. He first practiced law in St. Louis before finding his calling as the attorney for Frisco Railroads in Springfield, Missouri.

He got his start as a businessman by investing in the railroad, continuing to invest in various properties across the city. Woodruff is played a role in the development of countless Springfield staples including:

  • US Federal Medical Center
  • Ozark Empire Fairgrounds
  • Kentwood Arms Hotel
  • Woodruff Building (now Sky 11)
  • Springfield Normal School (now Missouri State University)
  • Hickory Hills Golf Course

Clearly, Woodruff had always been a proponent of economic development in town. This care for the growth of the city would be a key part of the birth of Route 66.

The road’s beginnings

Route 66 History would not exist without the pair of John T. Woodruff and Avery Cyrus. Cyrus, a former Missourian, was the Oklahoma Highway Commission chairman at the time, making him very familiar with the local roads. Woodruff was invested in many of the local businesses in town and cared deeply about the development of the city. These interests combined led the pair to brainstorm the idea for Route 66.

At the time, to be a city with a highway was a massive perk. Railroads were still incredibly useful for transportation, but the automobile was starting to make its debut and good roads were scarce. In fact, most roads at the time were poorly paved and fairly difficult to navigate. The highways especially only connected major cities, meaning that transporting anything to a rural community required the use of trains.

This led to Avery and Woodruff setting out to create a road that spanned from Chicago to Los Angeles, connecting the east to the west. The course wasn’t linear, but it worked to link a number of rural areas that had no other highways, making it perfect to transport items by truckers. This also helped attract business to areas where there may not have previously been business before.

While the road itself did not begin in Springfield, the idea of the route was born here, making Springfield the home for the Main Street of America. Some of the major cities along Route 66 include:

  • Chicago, Illinois
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Santa Monica, California

Woodruff and Avery also played a key role in the naming of the road. The road had first been named Route 60, as all main east-west highways at the time ended in zero. However, the after some discussion, the pair decided to call the road Route 66 instead. They felt that it would be easier to promote, especially with the flow of having two of the same number. Thus, on April 30th, 1926, a telegram was sent to the Bureau of Public Roads asking that the name be changed to Route 66.

Woodruff continued his involvement in the road’s expansion by becoming president of the US Highway 66 Foundation, founded the year after the road was built.

Route 66 now

Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1984 and not all of the road remains anymore. Some of the two-lane highway has been removed to make way for interstates and other parts of the road may be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate. However, you can still see remnants of the road, especially in Springfield. On St. Louis Street, you can see the sign for Red’s Giant Hamburg, the first drive-thru fast food restaurant. Many of these areas are marked by Historic Route 66 signs. If you desire the real Route 66 experience, some maps mark the areas where you can drive the famed route.

If you want to learn more about Route 66 or the contributions of John T. Woodruff, visit History Museum on the Square.

Our current exhibit Memories of the Mother Road takes a look at the iconic highway and gives you an inside look into the road that put Springfield, Missouri on the map.