What could have been a major setback for Claremore business dollars was being viewed in the exact opposite manner 58 years ago this month.
Would the completion of the Will Rogers Turnpike limit travelers stopping and spending money like they had been doing while driving U.S. Highway 66? City leaders didn’t believe it would hurt at all. Instead, they felt it would improve the economy.
One way or the other, the area was about to find out. The 88.5 mile toll road, Oklahoma’s second one, officially opened for vehicles on June 21, 1957.
Governor Raymond Gary arrived by airplane at Vinita to cut the ribbon at high noon. The plane actually landed on the highway. Despite the craft suffering a flat tire, the ceremonies came off as planned.
Getting a jump on those ceremonies, Claremore officials and guests held their own grand opening with a ribbon cutting at the Claremore exit. Mayor Eltinge Streeter had been scheduled to cut the red ribbon, but due to illness, he turned the duties over to Assistant Mayor Don Jordan.
This occurred at 10 a.m. At the conclusion of the short event here, Jordan and several others boarded a scheduled bus to attend the Vinita event. Among the ones joining the assistant mayor were Dorset Hocker, Col. Homer Ledbetter, Joe Zodrow, Elmer Tanner, Ed Livermore, Sam Haddad, Bill Briscoe, Clem McSpadden, and Bob Love.
Costing a total of $68 million, the major four lane turnpike was not quite finished on the opening date. A stretch of four miles west of Afton was still being paved. Two lanes were open for traffic.
The turnpike ran in a near straight line from the Oklahoma-Missouri state line near Joplin to Catoosa east of Tulsa. A four lane bypass crossed Tulsa and joined the Turner Turnpike going to Oklahoma City.
With the Will Rogers pike in operation, a motorist could now travel from Augusta, Maine to Oklahoma City on a four lane highway.
Soon to be designated as part of Interstate 40, the Oklahoma section replaced Highway 66 as the major road. Entrance and exit gates were placed at Claremore, Vinita, and Miami.
Back in Claremore, the community gained a new eating spot. A mile past the local gate a Howard Johnson Restaurant was opened. In addition to turnpike traffic, customers could get there off Highway 20.
Bill McMahan was named as manager for the 72-seat restaurant. Friday nights would soon become the favorite evening for Claremore area residents. In addition to the 28 flavors of ice cream HJ was famous for having, Fridays featured “Fish Nite” at $1.25 for all one could eat.
A Phillips 66 service station featured 11 gasoline pumps.
Joe Busby, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper since 1946, was assigned to the turnpike for the Claremore area.
Before both the Turner and Will Rogers pikes were built, state officials stressed the proposed tolls would be lifted once the construction was paid off. That is yet to happen.
Even so, after almost six decades, Claremore and the Will Rogers Turnpike remain good neighbors.