Baxter Springs and Route 66 is an anomaly. The place used to be a vein through the middle of America’s body; a place that highlighted the golden age of vehicles, road trips, and…bank robberies? One must imagine that Route 66 was, at one point, alive with hustle and bustle all the way from Chicago to the west coast. But as with any busy area of human population, crime tends to follow money, and there was a lot of money rolling along Route 66. Baxter Springs, a sleepy town home to a humble cafe and the man who inspired Tow-Mater from “Cars,” was alive and kicking back then. So much so that it became a hotbed for robberies during the age of Bonnie and Clyde.
Baxter Springs gained it’s first true calling as the first and one of the largest cow towns in the Kansas. It was a stop for cowboys as they drove cattle to and from Texas, and this made the town flourish. After railroads bypassed the town and made it easier to move cattle, the population began to disappear until lead was discovered nearby. The mining possibilities renewed interest in the area, and then the historical Route 66 brought even more business to the town in the 20’s. Soon after, Baxter Springs gained it’s notorious nickname.
Bonnie and Clyde were flying high during their crime spree in the 1930’s. At some point during their robbery rampage, they rolled through the town and robbed the general store. Then, one week later, they came back through the town and robbed the same store again. The criminal activity didn’t stop there, however. The Wilbur Underhill gang came through and robbed the American National Bank in 1933, taking two people hostage. That building, seen in the pictures above and below, still operates as a bank today (the hostages were dropped off outside of town relatively unharmed). It’s also worth noting that the town was robbed during the other heyday of crime during the cow town era: Jesse James got in on the shenanigans along with some other gangs, pulling off heist after heist before automobiles were ever invented. Regardless, Route 66 clearly brought both treasures and curses to the small, southeast Kansas town. That being said, we as a family had an absolute great time there. The people were incredibly friendly and even the kids loved learning the history behind the place!
But, Baxter Springs isn’t the only notable area on Route 66 in Kansas. The small town of Galena, Kansas sits even closer to the border just east of Baxter Springs, and Route 66 runs prominently though that town, as well. It’s Galena where you can stop and see “Cars on the Route”, which our kids loved. It’s a small gas station turned tourist attraction where you can see life size variations of the characters from the “Cars” movies. Just next to that is one of the old, original stretches of Route 66, and we had to take a short trip down that just to say we did. It’s empty now, but you can still see remnants of old garages that Route 66 was known for. It’s amazing to think how ghostly it is now compared to how lively it had to be before, with families just like ours taking roadtrips out west.
Many people will write off the Kansas stretch of Route 66 as being too short to be worth it, but they’d be missing a ton. Galena and Baxter Springs are full of history and neat stops, and it’s still a spot where you can almost feel the old-school Route 66 just under the sleepy veil that’s been brought on by the bypass. We spent half a day in both towns before moving southwest towards Tulsa, Oklahoma, but we were lucky to be able to stay on Route 66 as we traveled. There’s a lot more we’ll cover on the route, but we had to give Kansas its moment. Our family had an absolute blast there, which was completely unexpected because we almost skipped the whole section! If you haven’t already, go check out our posts about Weston’s Cafe and Dean “Crazy Legs” Walker, both of which are part of Kansas’ Route 66.