One of the most widely-advertised sites on Route 66 is Meramec Caverns (Exit 230 off I-44, 573/468-3166, 9am-7pm daily May-June, 8:30am-7:30pm daily July-early Sept., 9am-6pm daily Sept. and Apr., 9am-5pm daily Oct. and Mar., 9am-4pm daily Nov.-Feb.; $21 adults, $11 children 5-11, children under 4 free).
Discovered in 1720, the limestone cave was opened to the public in the mid-1930s by Lester B. Dill. Today visitors can see a wonderland of stalactites and stalagmites. Guided 80-minute tours depart every 20-30 minutes and are conducted on well-lit walkways in a seven-story amphitheater of colorful mineral formations. In honor of 9/11, a computerized LED light show accompanies the song God Bless America. The interior temperature is a constant 58 degrees; bring a jacket and wear sturdy shoes.
The Barns of Meramec Caverns
Meramec Caverns was launched as a tourist attraction by Lester B. Dill during the Great Depression, so Dill had to be creative about bringing in business. Dill was one of the first people to use bumper stickers as a promotional tool, and he also painted huge ads on barns. No one knows for sure how many barn ads remain, but Dill, together with Jim Gauer, painted hundreds of barns in about 40 states.
For 45 years, the duo traveled the country offering to paint barns for free as long as they could paint the Meramec Caverns logo on the roof. Sometimes they offered watches, whiskey, and cave tour tickets in exchange for prime roadside real estate. In 1968 barn rooftop advertising was banned, but the older Meramec ads were grandfathered in under the law.
Getting There and Back on Route 66
From I-44, take Exit 230 in Stanton. Turn left (south) and pass over the railroad tracks. The caverns are about 3 miles away.
If you’re tired of the interstate, you can get off at Exit 230 (Meramec Caverns) and take the pre-1930s alignment instead. After exiting I-44, turn left (east) on Highway W and take your first right (south) onto North Service Road. After about 2.5 miles, the road becomes East Springfield Road and enters the town of Sullivan.
Sullivan was once a mining town rich in lead, iron, zinc, and copper, and it’s also the place where William Randolph Hearst’s father was born. Today, however, there’s no reason to stop in Sullivan, so keep following Springfield Road until it rejoins the service road alongside I-44. After about 5 miles, you’ll reach the town of Bourbon.