While Route 66 tourism is a massive draw for towns bypassed by interstate highways since the 1950s and 1960s, the Mother Road will never look exactly as it did at its peak. It takes a particular kind of person to look at the abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses along its path and see opportunity. Eli Chenowith is an entrepreneur from Miami, Oklahoma who has the all-important optimism to restore and reopen Route 66 businesses. At 19 years old, he’s several generations younger than most people working to bring Route 66 back to life.
Chenowith has been harnessing the power of Route 66’s nostalgia and popularity since he opened his first business, a shaved ice shop called The Frozen Elephant, when he was 16. The business is located on Route 66, right next to Waylans Ku-Ku, an iconic burger joint in Miami (pronounced My-am-uh). The location was very intentional, he says, and he makes the most of Frozen Elephant’s place on the Mother Road. “There’s so much business that goes through Ku-Ku. I have a Route 66 emblem on my shaved ice cup. I wanted to try and capture as many ‘Route 66s’ as I could,” he says.
Breathing new life into Route 66
Chenowith’s next venture involves two retro Mother Road-era service stations. He acquired the historic Miami Marathon Oil Company Service Station in April, and in June, he purchased the town’s oldest gas station, which he says dates to 1921. He’d seen the 1921 station sitting abandoned and decaying for about eight years. Chenowith is excited about the opportunity to give the station a second life. “I really feel like I’m in a position where I can breathe new life into this building and make the local community really proud,” he says.
Chenowith’s plans for the service stations are still up in the air, as he waits on permits and permissions, but he ultimately hopes to move the 1921 station next to the Marathon Oil station. The next step will be to restore them. “I want to put my own touch on it. But yes, it will be restored very nicely. I won’t do anything gaudy to it,” Chenowith says.
He’s still figuring out what business—or businesses—he’ll open in the buildings once they’re refurbished. Chenoweth says that while he wouldn’t mind staying in the shaved ice business, he sees other opportunities as well. “No one capitalizes on the Route 66 memorabilia and gifts and stuff in this area, and I really see that Marathon station as a perfect home for all the Route 66ers to continue to stop and to continue to sign their name whenever they come through. I want it to continue to be a Route 66 stop.”
As for the future of Route 66, his outlook is positive. He doesn’t see the Mother Road losing popularity with the next generation. As he puts it, “Kids my age still love cars and even if we weren’t the first ones to experience the highways, we are familiar as this was one of the most iconic roads in American history—the architecture and the history and the people that have had relationships because of it, it’s all fascinating. I think a lot of youth, a lot of the younger generations realize that.”