The shortest but perhaps best-signed stretch of Route 66’s eight-state run is its 13.2-mile slice across the southeast corner of Kansas. Be careful not to blink your eyes, or you’ll be saying, as Dorothy did in The Wizard of Oz, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Coming from Missouri, your first town in Kansas is Galena, where the funky Galena Mining and Historical Museum (319 W. 7th St., 620/783-2192, hours vary, free), just off the main drag and marked by a big Old 66 sign, is stuffed with old newspaper clippings and other items that gve a glimpse of town life during its 1920s-era mining heyday. At its peak, Galena had a population near 30,000, which was 10 times the current number. Various rusting tools and machines testify to the work that once went on here. That said, the hospitable Route 66 spirit lives on, most obviously at Cars on the Route (119 N. Main St., 620/783-1366), inside the old Kan-O-Tex gas station, now serving sandwiches and selling souvenirs related to Pixar’s animated Route 66 movie Cars. The early 1950s International Harvester tow truck that apparently inspired the Cars character “Tow Mater” is parked outside.
Another appetizing attraction awaits in Riverton, the next town to the west, where the Old Riverton Store (7109 SE Route 66, 620/848-3330), a.k.a. “Eisler Brothers,” has been open since the 1920s. Across the highway from a big power plant, the old store has a good deli counter, with good handmade sandwiches. The last of the Eislers passed away in 2009, but the store is still in good hands, headquarters of the small but active Kansas Route 66 Association and owned by its president. It’s an essential stop for fans of the old road.
Heading west towards Oklahoma, the newer highway bypasses a fine old rainbow-arched Route 66 concrete bridge, well-signed on the northeast side of Baxter Springs. Locals point with pride at the circa-1870 Crowell Bank in the historic three-block downtown, which was said to have been robbed by Jesse James. A block away, the nicely restored 1930s Phillips 66 filling station is now a useful museum and Baxter Springs information center (620/856-2385, Mar.-Nov.) at 10th Street and Military Avenue (a.k.a. Route 66).
Though it’s pretty quiet these days, during the Civil War Baxter Springs saw one of the worst massacres in the country’s history, when more than 100 unarmed Union soldiers, including many African Americans, were captured and killed by William Quantrill’s rebel Confederate raiders (including the aforementioned Jesse James), who had disguised themselves by wearing blue Union uniforms. A monument to the murdered soldiers stands in Baxter Springs Soldiers’ Lot in the Baxter City Cemetery, off US-166 two miles west of town.