Galena, Kansas: Original Tow Mater

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I found one of the most satisfying stops on the Mother Road in Galena.  On the corner of Front and Main, four local women have transformed an abandoned, old gas station into an essential stop on the drive through Kansas.  Appropriately enough, they named their project 4 Women on the Route.

A few years after my visit, the store changed its name to Cars on the Route.

The original alignment of Route 66 enters Galena, Kansas at the north end of the tiny downtown district, where Front Street turns onto Main Street.  After you make the turn, go 7 blocks south, and make a right, to follow 66 on into Baxter Springs, then Oklahoma.

Inside, you’re almost guaranteed to meet at least one of the four women.  I was lucky enough to meet two of them: Melba Rigg (on the left) and Renee Charles.  The other two are Betty and Judy Courtney.  What they’ve accomplished at this tiny old service station is nothing short if incredible.  In just a couple of years, they took a greasy, neglected old building, and turned it into a sparkling clean restaurant and gift shop.

Renee wasted no time giving me a lesson on the history of the place, explaining how it dated back to the earliest days of Route 66 (built in 1930).  She showed me a scrapbook filled with pictures of the place, before they started work.  It looked just like the dozens of other gas stations I drove past on this trip.

Then she told me about the station’s most famous resident.  He’s parked outside, and thanks to the cartoon eyes in the windshield, he’s easy to recognize.  That rusty old truck is the inspiration for Tow Mater, in the Disney/Pixar movie Cars.  The women held a naming contest for the original (since, Renee explained, the name Tow Mater was already taken).  Their favorite name, submitted by one of Galena’s young residents: Tow Tater.

Also out front, a pair of beautifully restored Kan-O-Tex gas pumps.

The women have big plans for their little corner of Route 66.  They would like to buy this old house, across the street from the station, and turn it into a bed & breakfast.  In a different lifetime, the old house served as Galena’s brothel.

The women also hope to someday buy and use an old warehouse building, that sits across the street from the gas station.  It, too, provided inspiration for the Pixar people, as they traveled Route 66, gathering ideas for their movie.

On the side of the building is a ghost sign.  Actually, it’s several different signs, one painted atop the other.  When you watch Cars, you’ll see a similar brick wall with a faded painting, proclaiming, “Radiator Springs, A Nice Place.”

Plan on spending a little while at 4 Women on the Route–especially if it’s lunch time.  It was still too early for me to eat, so I said goodbye to Melba and Renee, and explored the rest of Galena.

You’ll find more ghost signs as you drive through Galena.

There’s also a nice park, complete with a tank, next door to the Galena Mining and Historical Museum.

Like many other towns nearby, Galena owes its boom years to the lead mining industry.  The town’s population swelled in 1877, after lead was discovered, and mines sprung up.  The town profited until the 1930’s, when labor disputes turned deadly (Renee will be happy to tell you the story of the strikes that led to martial law, and forced Rout 66 to be shut down–the only time that ever happened on the Mother Road).  Lead mining continued, but operations began to dwindle in the 1960’s and 70’s, and the town’s population dropped to 1/10th its size.  These days, chat piles from the old mines have led to environmental problems in towns all around the area, including Picher, Oklahoma, which is so contaminated, the government is buying homes and urging people to move out (a deadly tornado in 2008 didn’t help the town, either).

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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