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Book Review: Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery

Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery. Susan Croce Kelly. University of Oklahoma Press, September 2, 2014, Hardcover and Kindle, 288 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

After reading the well-written Father of Route 66, it’s hard to believe that no one had previously written a biography of the influential and significant figure of Cy Avery. Automobile and highway buffs, as well as anyone interested in U.S. history, especially during the first three decades of the 20th century, will be glad that Susan Croce Kelly has corrected this oversight – and done so comprehensively and compellingly.

Building roads and bridges, drilling for oil, developing real estate, farming and running for office, the remarkable Avery was active on several fronts during an interesting period in the development of the United States.

Most would say that his biggest accomplishment was to help lift the country, literally, “out of the mud” by promoting and building paved roads. The automobile had just taking hold in the United States, and Avery served on numerous organizations, associations, and government bodies planning and creating a logical, interconnected national highway system. Avery, however, believed that his biggest contribution was to bring fresh water to his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In any event, he was a consummate public servant and tireless promoter better of roads, automobile use, commerce, civic engagement and Tulsa, then the “Oil Capital of the World.”

Kelly’s highly readable book is far more than a biography of an overlooked yet critical figure. It’s also a story of the times Avery lived through, including westward expansion, changing agricultural practices and the emerging power of oil – characteristics that would go a long way to define 20th century America. Due to a tremendous amount of research, manifested by her extensive footnotes, Kelly is able to write authoritatively. And when she addresses something that the record does not explain fully, she fills in the blanks convincingly.

The book’s only flaw is that is seems predisposed toward Avery, like an authorized biography rather than a more objective book. The years Kelly put in researching this and her previous book, Route 66: The Highway and Its People, may have made her too fond of her tall, “dashing” Tulsan. Occasionally, she gushes over Avery, as when she calls him shrewd, spellbinding, eloquent, tenacious, someone to be reckoned with, quick witted, full of boundless energy and curiosity – all in one paragraph.

Perhaps Kelly’s admiration for her subject made her fail to notice some of his faults and mistakes. Avery operated in a wide-open time and place, and he laid a lot of pipe and pavement. This afforded him many opportunities to benefit personally from his positions of responsibility on various boards, committees, and commissions. Chances are that his record was not as squeaky clean as Kelly portrays it to be.

To her credit, Kelly raises some accusations of graft and corruption. Avery steered a municipal convention center to be built on his land. He extended construction contracts without seeking new bids. He was a member of the Tulsa Commercial Club, a “good old boys club” that ran Tulsa according to its own wishes. He bought land from Native Americans who “needed cash.” His beloved Highway 66 happened to pass alongside land he owned where he built stores and a gas station. During the Depression, he used Works Progress Administration crews that he supervised to build a pond and dam on property he owned. Many of these questionable practices must have advanced Avery’s career and contributed to him becoming a millionaire. Nevertheless, Kelly dismisses Avery’s accusers as “rancorous,” “vitriolic,” “infuriating,” “just politics” and “corrupt.”

Still, the book is an easy, enjoyable read. Its pages are full of telling stories and entertaining anecdotes. In one case, Avery battles with the governor of Kentucky over a claim to “60” for a highway running through each of their respective states. (Numbers ending in “0” had more stature.) Avery lost and Oklahoma ended up with the less desirable “66.” Nevertheless, Avery won in the long run by out promoting Highway 60 and turning Route 66 into an American icon.

Chicago comes up when the governor of Kentucky accuses supporters of the 2,448-mile Route 66 of being in the clutches of the Mob because the highway starts in Chicago.

After Avery created Route 66, the “Main Street of America” fell into disrepair, was broken up, and has been eclipsed by the Interstate highway system. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on, not only in what remains of Route 66 but also in the national highway system and other, far-flung areas, from agriculture to aviation. You’ll get a kick out of reading this book, which captures admirably the life of Cy Avery – an extraordinary, civic-minded, business-oriented Renaissance man – and the spirit of his times.


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