Intriguing Connections: John Steinbeck, Route 66, and Sirup

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn October 1929, the collapse of the Stock Market ushered in the Great Depression. Its impact on the country was devastating: America’s GDP declined by 30%, unemployment reached more than 20% (about 15 million workers) leading to increased rates of poverty and homelessness, and almost 50% of banks failed. Even those who kept their jobs, lost about a third of their income. Adding to the crippling economic depression was a severe drought that brought destructive dust storms in the prairies of the country (an event known as “the Dust Bowl”), destroying over 100 million of acres of farmland. Unable to work the land, farmers lost their farmland and their homes. More than 200,000 families from the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, and adjacent areas in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, piled their families and few belongings into cars and made the desperate exodus to California, hoping to find work and a better life.

A few years after the Great Depression ended, John Steinbeck published his most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The realist novel, that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, chronicled the plight of the migrant families fleeing the Dust Bowl seeking employment in California. Most of the migrants traveled on Route 66, which Steinbeck nicknamed the “Mother Road” in the novel. However, Route 66 is not just a setting in The Grapes of Wrath, it also serves as a profound symbol for escape and loss. In chapter 12, he describes the migrants’ journey that was filled with hardship and challenges:

“Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

…And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.

The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes a single car, sometimes a little caravan. All day they rolled slowly along the road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively. How far between towns? It is a terror between towns. If something breaks — well, if something breaks we camp right here while Jim walks to town and gets a part and walks back and — how much food we got?”

Route 66, Steinbeck’s “Mother Road,” begins in Chicago, Illinois and cuts across seven states to reach Santa Monica, California, covering more than 2,448 miles. Route 66 (originally named Route 60) was the brainchild of two midwest businessmen: Cyrus Avery (known as the “Father of Route 66”) from Tulsa, Oklahoma and John Thomas Woodruff from Springfield, Missouri. Together, they lobbied the Associated Highways Association of America to build a commercial highway from Chicago to Los Angeles to link the small towns (supporting local stores and farms) of the midwest with the major markets on either end. The idea was that thousands of travelers would support all the local stores (and the farms that supplied these stores) that lined the Main Street of each small town; thus the highway was also known as the “Main Street of America.” Route 66 was officially started in 1926 upgrading dirt and gravel roads as well as building new connecting roadways. Once the highway was completed, it had a huge economic impact on all the towns — small and large — that were located along or near its path.

One of those small towns where Route 66 passes nearby is Funk’s Grove, located in central Illinois, which is named after its earliest settlers, Isaac and Absalom Funk, who arrived in the state in 1824. One of the most famous small businesses in town is Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup which has been producing Maple Sirup from the local sugar maple trees since 1891. I know what you’re thinking: sirup is a typo — it should be spelled “syrup.” There are actually two types of syrup with different spellings. If you visit the quaint Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup store you will see a handwritten sign that provides the following explanation:

Historically, and according to [Noah] Webster, “sirup” was the preferred spelling when referring to the product made by boiling sap. “Syrup” with a “y”, however, was defined as the end product of adding sugar to fruit juice. Though the “i” spelling is no longer commonly used, the United States Department of Agriculture and Canada also still use it when referring to pure maple sirup. Hazel Funk Holmes, whose trust continues to preserve and protect this timber for maple sirup production, insisted on the “i” spelling during her lifetime. It’s another tradition that will continue at Funk’s Grove.

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