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Cruising Route 66 through San Bernardino County

Make a detour into the Inland Empire to check out the Wigwam Motel, the original McDonald's and a Stater Bros. classic car fest this weekend.

September 13, 2009|Jay Jones

SAN BERNARDINO — Dottie Martin has a kinship with Route 66. Her junior and senior high schools in Edwardsville, Ill., were right on the Mother Road. So when it was time for her to drive back to Seattle after her high school reunion, Martin took the long way home, traveling along what's left of America's first transcontinental highway.

In San Bernardino County, a longtime wish came true as Martin pulled into the Wigwam Motel for a night in a tepee.

"I had never slept in a wigwam," she said of her desire to soak up the nostalgia and kitsch of decades past. Undeterred by the admonishment on her receipt -- "no refunds, no prostitution" -- Dottie crawled into bed, falling asleep to the whir of the window air conditioner and the occasional passing semi.

For decades, the noise could be deafening at the countless motels along Route 66 as the stream of cars, trucks and buses brought the promise of prosperity. Although much of that vanished with the construction of the interstate highways, it's still possible to relive the highway's heyday, even without spending a night in a tepee.

The annual Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous, Thursday to next Sunday, hearkens back to yesteryear. The event brings about half a million people and hundreds of classic cars to downtown San Bernardino.

The interiors of some of those vintage vehicles have been lovingly restored by Wanda Wells, a local upholsterer who will be inducted this year into the Rendezvous' Hall of Fame. Wells grew up here, right along the busy highway.

"From Saturday afternoon to Sunday at like 12 o'clock at night, you couldn't even walk across Route 66," Wells said as he restored a '57 Chevy Bel Air. "The traffic was that thick."

That constant stream of traffic encouraged brothers Dick and Mac McDonald to open McDonald's Famous Barbeque restaurant on E Street in 1940. They sold beef, ham and pork sandwiches -- with fries -- for 35 cents. For 20 cents more, the menu offered "giant malts -- made with real milk."

In 1948, the entrepreneurs decided to streamline their operation, limiting the menu to burgers, fries, shakes and sodas.

"They wanted to copy what Henry Ford did with autos," said Danny Castro, an amateur historian and founding member of the California Historic Route 66 Assn. "They wanted to create mass-production food."

The words "Famous Barbeque" were dropped. Yellow arches were added to make the building stand out. The fraternal entrepreneurs were soon followed by two young men who'd been best buddies at San Bernardino High School. Neal Baker started Baker's Drive-Thru, which still sells burgers at three dozen locations in the Inland Empire. And Glen Bell opened a burgers-and-hot dogs stand. Later, he switched to Mexican food and the Taco Bell chain was born.

The site of that first McDonald's -- years before Ray Kroc bought the business rights in 1961 -- now houses a museum featuring the history of both Route 66 and the McDonald brothers.

One of the most interesting displays consists of framed, handwritten stories by people who remember the original restaurant. Marietta White tells of meeting her future husband, Don, there in 1946.

"[I] chased him shamelessly," she wrote of the many hours spent chatting over cherry Cokes. The Whites were married the following year.

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travel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Off the Mother Road

The Original McDonald's & Route 66 Museum, 1398 North E St., San Bernardino. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous takes place Thursday to next Sunday in downtown San Bernardino, www.route-66.org.

The Wigwam Motel, 2728 W. Foothill Blvd., Rialto; (909) 875-3005, www.wigwammotel.com.

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