Photos by Notley Hawkins

Those of us who remember traveling across Missouri before the interstate highway system streamlined the drive no doubt recall pulling over at a roadside park for a rest and maybe even a picnic. Food options were scarce in those days, and many travelers packed their own, feasting on cold fried chicken, potato salad, and homemade bread, pies, and cakes. At least, that’s what I remember as a boy in the ’60s. When my family hit the road, Mom always packed a picnic with plenty of the above.

I started thinking about roadside parks because I see them on my travels across Missouri on what many would now called “backroads.” I had the impression that these icons were still around, and we were seeing less of them simply because they’re more often located on the roads less traveled. But these roadside stops are, in fact, disappearing.

After some investigating, I found Karen Daniels, senior historic preservation specialist for the Missouri Department of Transportation. She’s the expert on the state’s roadside parks.

Karen explains there is no plan to save the parks. “In fact, they have become places for illegal dumping, and the department doesn’t want to spend available resources to keep them open,” she says.

In the 1920s, the Missouri State Highway Department (the old name for the Missouri Department of Transportation, or MoDOT) began a program to beautify Missouri. The department worked with local garden clubs, chambers of commerce, and other organizations to plant and nurture native species, open up scenic  views, and take down signage and other visual pollution. “In one year, more than 200,000 daffodil bulbs were planted along Missouri highways,” Karen says.

As a continuation of the project, roadside parks began popping up in the 1930s. The first was the Mahan Roadside Park, built in 1932 on Route 19, south of Eminence. The Mahan park featured a stone oven, a stone arrow pointing due north, an elevation marker, picnic tables, and trash barrels. “These features were common in the parks built during the Depression era,” she says. Most of the early parks were placed at scenic overlooks, so visitors could take a load off and gaze at the view.

Soon, New Deal programs meant more funds and labor available for park construction. “In 1936, work was underway or complete on 10 roadside parks including the Frene Valley in Gasconade County, Tip Top in Iron County, Fourche a du Clos in Ste. Genevieve County, and Stillhouse Hollow in Wayne County,” Karen says.

Until about 1950, all of the roadside parks were south of the Missouri River, mostly in the Ozarks. By then, the highway department launched a formal policy. Many gardening clubs acquired Blue Star  Memorial Markers at the parks, and some parks were commemorated with markers from The State Historical Society of Missouri. By 1960, the number had peaked at 102. Today, there are only 32 parks remaining.

There are many reasons why the number has dwindled. “Because of their location adjacent to highways, roadside parks would be absorbed into the highway as it expanded,” Karen explains. “This happened to several original Route 66 roadside parks. Others were closed when neighbors complained about late-night, noisy parties. Still others were closed due to illegal dumping, which MoDOT had to clean up, taking vital funds away from highway maintenance.” Others have been adopted into local, state, or national park systems.

So how do we save these iconic pieces of Americana? Karen says it simply: “The only way we are going to save them is for people to use them. The more they use them, the more it will discourage illegal dumping.”

Maybe we should all slow down a bit, take the backroads more often, and stop at a historic roadside park. All 32 are marked with an icon on Missouri’s official maps issued by MoDOT, which are available at most Missouri rest stops and visitor centers along the interstate highways.

On your next adventure, consider pulling over at one of these parks. Enjoy the view.