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Oral History on Route 66

(Released: February, 2004)

Much of what the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program deals with is helping to preserve and keep in use the historic properties along Route 66. But we also realize that these buildings and stretches of pristine road have fascinating stories to tell. An important project that the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has helped fund is the Route 66 Oral History Project. We are very fortunate to have partnered with the New Mexico Route 66 Association and David Dunaway, Department of English, University of New Mexico, to implement this project. Dr. Dunaway is an internationally renowned oral historian, and has published and lectured extensively on the subject. For the 75th anniversary of Route 66, he spent three years documenting Route 66’s overlooked stories and forgotten places for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition”, which has been adapted to a compact disc titled “Across the Tracks” (for more information on his series, visit www.unm.edu/~rt66 )

Since Route 66 was only de-commissioned 19 years ago, it is still a relatively recent part of our American experience. Many of us remember traveling or working on the route during the later decades: the war years of the 40s, the booming 50s, the turbulent 60s, and the transition of Route 66 to the interstate in the 70s. Some of us older folks remember the road from the depression-era 30s, and even a few of us back to the birth stages of the road in the 1920s. The point is, there are many stories that beg to be told about the road that can’t be learned from newspaper accounts, county records, or history books. As David Lowenthal states in his excellent book The Past is Foreign Country, “the discontinuous facts of the past become intelligible only when woven together as stories”. The type of stories I am talking about involve people, and the experiences they felt – the sweat dripping from the bodies of laborers during construction of the road, the clamoring sounds of a diner, the difficulty in finding lodging on the road if you were a minority, traffic jams, the beauty of the landscape, expectations and perceptions, the new-found freedom of automobile, transformation of towns and economies, people helping people - these all are still alive in the memory of those who lived, worked and traveled the road. We need to feel the past to better understand it, and that is what oral history helps us do. Since many of us who interacted with the road are still alive, time is of the essence to capture as many of these feelings, recollections, and perceptions as we can.

And that is where the Route 66 Oral History Project comes in. Last year the project provided training through seven oral history workshops attended by 110 participants that took place in seven states along Route 66. Participants received training in interviewing, research, conserving oral histories, as well as technical advice on purchasing and using equipment. Since there are many oral histories that have already been collected over the years previous to this project, a major focus this year will be to determine the extent of holdings of existing Route 66 oral histories and to catalogue as many as possible. A guide for collecting Route 66 oral history is also being developed. If you are interested in learning more about this exciting project, or have information about oral histories that have already been collected, please contact the Route 66 Oral History Office, Department of English, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87131.

Michael Taylor
Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program

 

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