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Springfield, Missouri: On the Beaten Path

Its Central Midwest Location, Deep and Varied History, and Diverse Attractions Make Springfield a Perfect Exploration Destination

A while back I took a wonderful-but-too-short weekend road trip to Springfield, Missouri, the state’s third-largest city with a population of about 160,000. Known as the Queen City of the Ozarks, it is also the birthplace of the infamous Route 66 and home to several universities including Missouri State.

A flashback to the days when Route 66 was a big deal! Its legacy is still visible in Springfield.

The city is located 72 miles north of Berryville, on the Springfield Plateau of the Ozarks. It is mainly a flat city with rolling hills and cliffs surrounding the south, east, and north sections of the city. Springfield has many streams and tributaries within its borders, as well as five nearby lakes.

The city was incorporated in 1838. That was the same year that Cherokee Native Americans were forcibly relocated by the U.S. government from their homes in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia to the “Indian Territory”; their route, now known as the Trail of Tears, passed through Springfield on what is now called the Old Wire Road.

Called the birthplace of U.S. Route 66, it was in Springfield on April 30, 1926, that the government first named the new Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway.

The next year, the U.S. Highway 66 Association was organized in Tulsa, with a mission to get U.S. Highway 66 paved from end to end and to promote tourism on the highway. Eleven years later, in 1938, their efforts paid off as Route 66 became the first completely paved U.S. Numbered Highway in America — dubbed the “Mother Road” — reaching from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean.

Springfield is a city with plenty of green space.

The Jordan Valley Park fountain in Springfield, Missouri

There are 92 parks including the Botanical Center at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park, three golf courses, a zoo and other facilities run by the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. The department also oversees an extensive network of parks and bicycle/walking trails that travel near beautiful features unique to the Ozarks, such as creek beds, caves and springs.

A 35-mile, crushed-gravel trail, the Frisco Highline Trail, connects Springfield to the town of Bolivar and is especially popular with mountain bikers. The nearby James and Finley rivers provide plenty of spots for fishing and canoeing, and hiking, horse-back riding, and wilderness camping are all readily available just 20 miles to the south at the 2,500-acre Busiek National Forest. And Branson entertainment is within 45 miles.

Where To Stay (Even With Your Dog)

On my visit to Springfield, I stayed at the beautiful and well-apportioned Doubletree Hotel at 2431 N. Glenstone Ave. just off the interstate. With superior customer service, delicious affordable dining, and spacious quarters, the Doubletree is sure to make any visitor feel like a pampered celebrity. The hotel is pet-friendly, allowing dogs up to 75 pounds (a one-time fee of $50 applies for guests who bring their dog).

The Doubletree is in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks, just 15 minutes from Missouri State University, downtown Springfield, Hammon’s Field, Fantastic Caverns, and Bass Pro’s Wonders of Wildlife. The Doubletree has two full-service restaurants on-site, live jazz on some weekends, and an indoor-outdoor pool. The property also boasts a brand new Glendalough Conference Center for weddings and events with up to 500 guests.

For more information about the Doubletree, call 417-831-3131 or visit the Springfield Doubletree by Hilton website.

Everything’s Waiting For You Downtown

Like many cities across the nation, Springfield’s downtown area has enjoyed a rebirth in recent years. Many of the older buildings are seeing redevelopment into mixed-use buildings such as lofts, office space, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, boutiques, and music venues. And the area even boasts historic theaters, restored to their original state, including the Gillioz and Landers.

The city offers a wide variety of entertainment options, as it is home to the Springfield Regional Arts Council, Springfield Regional Opera, Springfield Ballet, and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

And how about the food?

For a city its size, Springfield has a plethora of restaurant options — and it’s also known as the home of Cashew Chicken, ever since a New York Times article described the history and ascendancy of the dish in Springfield, where local variations of the popular Chinese dish are ubiquitous.

Leong’s Asian Diner is world-famous for its rendition of Cashew Chicken, said to have been invented by its restaurant predecessor, Leong’s Tea House.

Leong’s Asian Diner is most famous for its rendition of Cashew Chicken. The dish was purportedly invented by Leong’s Tea House, the now-closed predecessor of Leong’s Asian Diner.

“When I moved here in the 1950s, people kept telling me about fried chicken,” Mr. Leong told The New York Times in 2009. “I did what they wanted. I gave them fried chicken with Chinese oyster sauce and cashews.”

Missouri’s Original Country Music Capital

During the 1950s, Springfield had the nation’s third-highest number of original, locally produced network television programs — behind only New York and Hollywood. Four national TV series originated in the city between 1955 and 1961: “Ozark Jubilee” and its spinoff, “Five Star Jubilee”; “Talent Varieties”; and “The Eddy Arnold Show.” Many of the biggest names in country music either often visited or permanently lived in Springfield during this era, which mightily boosted the city’s tourism coffers.

A vintage 1960 ticket from the Ozark Jubilee TV show produced in Springfield, Missouri.

Staged at the Jewell Theatre (demolished in 1961), “Ozark Jubilee” was the first national country music TV show to feature top stars and attract a significant viewership. “Five Star Jubilee,” produced from the Landers Theatre, was the first network TV series shown in color to originate outside of New York City or Hollywood. However, Springfield’s own residents never saw the show in color; the city’s NBC affiliate (which helped produce the program) was not yet equipped for color TV and aired the show in black and white.

Red Foley sings during an Ozark Jubilee TV show circa 1955. (From the History Museum on the Square)

In addition to the TV programs, Springfield was well-known nationally as home to several nationally aired radio shows. ABC, NBC and Mutual radio networks carried country music shows from Springfield during the decade, including KWTO’S “Korn’s-A-Krackin.’”

In 2008, America’s Promise Alliance ranked Springfield among its “100 Best Communities for Young People” for the third year in a row, and in 2009, Next Generation Consulting ranked Springfield 17th on its “Next Cities” list. The Milken Institute has listed Springfield as a “Best Performing City” for creating and sustaining jobs, and Expansion Management magazine has listed Springfield among “Top 20 Mid-Sized Metros for Recruitment and Attraction.”

This article was first published in Currents magazine, a lifestyles publication for Carroll County, Arkansas, residents published by Rust Communications when the author was executive editor. Click here to view the PDF pages as they originally were published in the magazine.