In Missouri, a garden hoe is the best tool for killing cobras. In the summer of 1953, Roland Parrish was working in his front yard, when a long black snake raised its head and spread its hood. One swift swipe with the hoe and the snake was dead. A week later, Roland’s neighbor Wesley saw his bulldog attack a snake in the bushes, so he rushed out pulled the animals apart, then grabbed his own garden hoe and bashed the snake. Wesley called the Springfield police, who were baffled by the strange reptile. In the end it was Herbert, the eighth grade science teacher, who identified the snake as Naja naja—a deadly Indian cobra. With that lead, the police paid a visit to the Mowrer Animal Company on Route 66, but the pet shop owner denied that any of his animals were missing.
A week later, when another cobra was killed with a hoe in someone’s front yard, the city of Springfield went into panic. Suddenly, the townspeople were on the offensive. One man spotted a snake on the road, and smashed it with a car jack before running it over repeatedly. And when her own daughter told her that a snake had just gone into the garage, Mrs. McCoy brandished a hoe, bravely entered and killed the snake. Throughout early September, the snakes kept popping up (literally). When Mr. Stockton saw one slithering in his yard, he threw a rock at it, chasing it into his crawlspace. The police first tried trapping the cobra, then exploded a canister of tear gas under the house. When the snake finally crawled out, the policeman fired off every bullet in his barrel—and missed—before Mr. Stockton stepped in with a hoe and dispatched the snake. Though it was quite real at the time, Springfield’s Cobra Scare is now something of a Missouri legend. A month after the first exotic snake was killed, LIFE magazine published a story on “The Big Ozark Cobra Hunt”, while the local hospital ordered enough cobra anti-venom to treat the police force and any unlucky citizens who happened to get bit. Luckily, nobody did—not even when one police unit ran over a cobra but failed to kill it. The snake struck the car with his fangs repeatedly, but in the end, met his end with a rock. Fearful that hundreds of deadly cobras still remained lurking about town, the City Health Director hired a snake charmer from Florida who broadcast flute music from the back of a truck as it drove through town. Coincidentally (?), two cobras emerged from beneath the Springfield Pickle Works, and were killed—with a hoe. All in all, eleven cobras were discovered and dispatched—but long after the snakes were declared gone forever, the unsettling fear remained. Today, urban legend says that a few cobras are still out there, one local shop sells “Springfield Cobra Scare” T-shirts, and for a time, the city’s seal incorporated a hooded cobra. It took thirty years before Springfield citizen Carl Burnett confessed to releasing the snakes on Route 66—he was just a kid at the time, he explained, and after his pet fish died, he was mad at the owner of the pet shop. When he couldn’t find Mr. Mowrer, he went around back and opened up one of his crates, releasing the snakes into the street. His was a petty crime of revenge, but Carl had no idea the snakes were cobras until it made national news. By then he was too scared to confess.
Though I looked carefully, I saw no cobras when I drove down St. Louis Street and into the tree-blossomed heart of Springfield, Missouri. Like the snakes, the Mowrer Animal Company is long gone, but Springfield’s very first Steak ‘n Shake is still on Route 66, like a black-and-white striped lighthouse on the corner with their signature red neon command: Takhomasak! (“Take Home a Sack”). Steak ‘n Shake first opened on Route 66 (in Normal, Illinois) but out of 500 + restaurants, this location in Springfield is the only one that still offers drive-in service—meaning you can order, pay, and be served at your parked car.
“I’ve been coming here since the day they opened!” said Doran Livingstone, a man with ice-white hair, pin-striped shirt and a cowboy hat. Since 1962, Doran has come here every week and ordered the same thing—triple burger with no cheese—“It’s only four bucks!” he says, and he likes the consistency. At 88 years old, Doran has witnessed the rise and fall—and resurgence—of Springfield’s downtown business. “Oh, they all made a big mistake going out to the mall—this is the place to be at,” said Doran, pointing to Route 66. According to Ed, the manager of this particular Steak n’ Shake, the summer brings a new wave of travelers on Route 66, and a lot of them stop to eat here. “How many, exactly?” I asked him. “Well, in summer, maybe 20 per week?” Not enough to keep a business afloat, which is still the major challenge for gas stations, hotels and restaurants in smaller towns along Route 66. “We had a guy here last year from Switzerland—he weighed maybe 110 pounds max, but he had shipped his car to New York City and then drove out here on Route 66!” reported Ed. I hear these stories more and more, all along the Mother Road—tales of foreign visitors on a pilgrimage into America’s heartland. French, Swiss, Belgian, German, Australians, Kiwis, Poles, Brits, and Norwegians—and now Chinese—from all around the world, travelers come to America and drive down Route 66. It’s become a destination in its own right, but a destination that we Americans seem to overlook. “In France, they learn about Route 66 in school,” said Ed. “They teach it in Geography class—but in America, we don’t really learn about it.” Ed is right, and he pointed out the irony of all this while wearing his wrinkle-free burger manager uniform and standing four blocks away from the birthplace of Route 66. The Continental Hotel was torn down in the 1980’s, but an engraved plaque remains on the spot where in April 1926, a few visionaries gathered to work out the details of this national highway. “Cyrus Avery wanted it to be called Route 60, but the number had already been assigned to Kentucky, and they wouldn’t budge on it,” explained John Sellars, Executive Director of the Historical Museum in Springfield, Missouri. Washington came back with the offer of Route 62, but Cyrus, who was head of the Oklahoma State Highway Commission at the time, simply didn’t like it. “Sixty-two sounded too much like Sixty, Too—or sixty, also—like it was second best,” said John. It was here in Springfield that the team thought up the number “66” and then sent their decision to Washington by telegram: “Regarding Chicago Los Angeles road if California Arizona New Mexico and Illinois accept sixty six instead of sixty we are inclined to agree to this change. We prefer sixty six to sixty two.”
The rest is history. Springfield’s own John T. Woodruff was elected president of the US Highway 66 Association and work began almost immediately. Webster County (due east of Springfield) was the very first county to pave their entire stretch of Route 66—while it took ten years to pave the rest of the 2,448-mile highway (Route 66 was the very first completely paved highway in the United States numbered highway system). But Springfield’s history goes much deeper than the escaped cobras and a stuffy hotel meeting with a few men in suits. Long before there was any town on this spot, this was a crossroads for American Indian trails. “Seven different Indian trails met right here—the Kickapoo and the Osage, and then later, the Delaware. There was in fact a mineral spring here—which is why all the trails led to this point. There was water for the horses, and there was game to be hunted—animals would come here to drink,” John Sellars pointed out a trait that holds true for much of Route 66—long before they were paved for cars, these overland routes were traveled by the first Americans. In fact, this stretch of Route 66 through Missouri follows the northern arc of the Trail of Tears. “The Cherokee came through on their way to Oklahoma,” explained John, “And they camped right here in Springfield.” An estimated 4,000 Cherokee died during their forced relocation west—and once the Indians were gone, the cowboys followed. A hundred years before the first Steak n’ Shake, Springfield was serving beer and card games in some fairly rowdy saloons.
In 1865, just steps away from what is now the Historical Museum that the notorious Wild Bill Hickok shot and killed Davis Tutt in America’s first ever quick-draw duel. The two mens’ pistols exploded at 6 PM (and not high noon) and set the standard for Wild West shootouts that followed, and then re-enacted by Hollywood. Jaywalking into the slow traffic of Springfield’s Park Central Square, I approached the brass circle set in the pavement and read the words aloud, “Here James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok Stood When He Shot Dave Tutt, July 21, 1865 Over A Gambling Debt.”
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I walked back across the square to the other brass marker, where Davis Tutt fell dead 149 years ago. “Will Bill was a helluva shot,” I thought, looking back across the square some 75 yards away. Something about actually walking the paces of this first duel made this Wild West anti-hero come alive—for a man to make his mark from that distance was just incredible. No wonder his reputation outlived him. And all this on Route 66! In Springfield, Missouri, “Main Street of America” passes directly over the very spot where two American cowboys had their first shootout. It passes the Trail of Tears, the restaurant that was once the world’s very first drive-in and past the theater where Elvis sang on his westward tour. Just east of here, it passes the precise population center of America, so that this is, quite literally, the heartland.
“When it comes to Route 66, I really think we’re seeing a resurgence,” John Sellars told me. “People nowadays want a grounding, they want an anchor and a home.” Route 66 offers that anchor—a guideline across the country that connects everything it means to be an American. “We just ran a Route 66 exhibit for 7 months—we had to extend it for two extra months because it was so popular. Our museum was always full—we had visitors from 27 states and 21 different countries!” “Why is that?” I asked him. “What is it about Route 66 that gets people so excited?” “Oh, it’s the romance of travel—there’s a growing cachet for traveling the old road.” You can take down the signs and you can change the name, but you can’t stop people from traveling Route 66, because this road means too much. Too much has happened here and the memories are too strong for it all to simply fade away like white paint on the pavement. Thirty-four towns in 25 different states are all named “Springfield”, but the one in Missouri is the only one like it. I was honestly sad to leave after just one day—I felt like I had only scratched the surface of one of the most complex cities in the whole Midwest—but the road called me onwards, westwards, and I drove out of town ever so slowly, always watching the road . . . in case of cobras.