Route 66: A History

Dust Bowl

We loaded up our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.

- Woody Guthrie – “Dust Storm Disaster”

Severe droughts ravaged the Great Plains in the early 1930s, stirring up dust storms and eroding land that had been improperly plowed and over-farmed in the previous decades. At the same time, Depression-era prices fell drastically for crops that had been in high demand during World War I. As the landscape became uninhabitable and the depression wore on, more than 200,000 refugees from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri followed Route 66 west to Arizona or California in search of jobs and new homes.

Florence Hanan Currier, who attended Arizona State Teacher’s College from 1934-1936, lived in the Flagstaff area during the Dust Bowl era and witnessed the migration of families through northern Arizona. “It was sad to see families on the move and in need,” wrote Mrs. Currier (Currier). "We lived in a small trailer and parked in Kit Carson Forestry camp. While there we saw and talked to many families who had left the ‘Dust Bowl’ areas, many striving to find a better life."

John Steinbeck, who had made his own journey west on Route 66 with his wife in 1937, illustrated the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, which follows the fictional Joad family as they travel westward down the highway to escape barren Oklahoma. Steinbeck wrote:
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map….66 is the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership….66 is the mother road, the road of flight (as quoted in Dedek 39).

The novel and the subsequent film, directed by John Ford and released in early 1940, coined the nickname "The Mother Road" and elevated Route 66 to an iconic status. Audiences viewed the film as a "modern Western, one in which the wagon train had been turned into the auto caravan and the Oregon Trail into U.S. 66" (Krim 110).

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