Rolling prairies and wildflowers probably aren’t the first images your mind conjures up when thinking of Route 66. More likely you’re picturing neon signs, classic cars, drive-ins, motor-court motels, and oddities like the Blue Whale of Catoosa.
It may not be a traditional roadside attraction in that sense, but Shaw Nature Reserve has been a stop on the Mother Road since its inception nearly 100 years ago.
A Road Runs to It
Shaw Nature Reserve was born just one year before Route 66. Purchased by the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1925, the Arboretum at Gray Summit (now Shaw Nature Reserve) served as a refuge for plants under threat from smog in the city. Route 66 would come into existence in 1926, cutting a path from Chicago to Los Angeles through St. Louis and right past the Reserve.
Route 66 had an immediate impact on the Arboretum. Uncertainty about the exact path of the new highway delayed several projects, including the construction of a stone lodge that now serves as the Visitor Center.
Road construction prevented trucks from reaching the newly built orchid greenhouses, forcing the Garden to get creative with its 1928 Orchid Show. Instead of transporting entire plants, staff brought only cut blooms to the Garden, displaying them behind glass with the stems placed in tubes of water.
Despite these speed bumps, Garden leaders overwhelmingly saw Route 66 as a benefit for the Nature Reserve and the region. The new road didn’t just connect Chicago to Los Angeles, it also provided easy access from the bustling urban center of St. Louis to the quiet countryside and natural surroundings of the Garden’s Arboretum.
Almost immediately after it opened to traffic, Garden leaders looked to put their own stamp on Route 66 through roadside beautification projects. Those efforts were spearheaded by Lars Peter Jensen, the first director of the Garden’s new Arboretum.
Jensen was president of the Watson-Antire Regionway Improvement Association—a group that also included area residents and local leaders. The organization advocated for roadside beautification, not just through adding plants and trees, but also regulating businesses and billboards along the highway, and promoting recreational activities in the region.
The group focused on 35 miles of Route 66, from the St. Louis city limits to the Arboretum in Gray Summit. With labor provided by the Bureau of Homeless Men and the State Highway Department, more than 10,000 new trees and shrubs were planted along this stretch of road by 1934.
Jensen and landscape architect John Noyes designed the planting scheme. The Garden also provided a plot of land at the Arboretum to serve as a plant nursery for the State Highway Department. Trees and shrubs grown here were planted along roadsides throughout the state.
The Henry Shaw Gardenway
As beautification efforts revved up, so did the calls for a special designation. In 1934, the 35-mile stretch of highway leading to the Arboretum was officially named the Henry Shaw Gardenway.
The decision was lauded as a fitting tribute to Garden founder, Henry Shaw. “The Missouri Botanical Garden is at one end of the strip and its beautiful arboretum is taking form at the other end. With these institutions promising their cooperation in the beautification of the length of it, there can be no doubt that a gardenway in fact as well as in name will exist in the not-far distant future,” proclaimed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time.
In 1935, five large metal commemorative tablets were installed along the Gardenway—at the St. Louis city limit, at Buder Park, two near Pacific, and one at the entrance to the Reserve. In an unexpected twist, two of the plaques were stolen the next day. An additional Gardenway plaque was dedicated at Tyson Valley Park in 1950.
The Watson-Antire Regionway Improvement Association changed its name to the Henry Shaw Gardenway Association, and continued its efforts to beautify and maintain Route 66 along the Gardenway. The group worked with property owners to secure a 200-foot roadside easement so plantings could be more uniform. The Gardenway Association also held contests for business beautification, and even fought to ban political signs.
The Civilian Conservation Corps
Roadside beautification efforts received a boost with the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The depression-era program aimed to provide jobs through public works projects. The CCC arrived in 1935, setting up camp near Pacific. Tasks included grading and planting the additional easement along Route 66. The workers also constructed two stone shelters—Jensen Point and the Gardenway Bus Stop.
Jensen Point was built on a bluff south of Pacific, overlooking the Meramec River. The shelter was named in honor of Lars Peter Jensen for his leadership of the Gardenway efforts. The dedication ceremony on Memorial Day in 1939 was dubbed “Garden Day Along the Garden Way.” It included a “galaxy of beautiful floats” as part of a parade down the Gardenway from the Missouri Botanical Garden. The property has been recently reopened to the public as a Pacific city park.
The Civilian Conservation Corps also constructed the Gardenway Bus Stop in 1939. It was one of several planned bus stop shelters, but the only one ever built. The small stone shelter sat near the shoulder of Route 66/Interstate 44 in Allenton until 2002, when it was moved to Shaw Nature Reserve to make way for highway improvements. Today, visitors to the Nature Reserve will find the bus stop near the trailhead for the Wetland Trail.
The Gardenway Today
Route 66 faded as modern interstates took hold. Today, Interstate 44 follows a similar track to the original road through St. Louis. And in 2002, a stretch of I-44 mirroring the footprint of the original Gardenway was named the Henry Shaw Ozark Corridor. The corridor highlights the public natural areas in the Meramec watershed region.
The creation of the corridor also brought renewed interest to the roadside. Many of the original plantings have likely been lost over time. Today, the Missouri Department of Transportation handles roadside maintenance along I-44. In collaboration with the Garden, MoDOT created prairie rehab areas along the corridor to restore native grassland habitat. Those prairie rehab areas can now be found along highways throughout the state—one even sits at the entrance to I-44 in Gray Summit, just a few feet from Shaw Nature Reserve.
Historic Route 66, now Highway 100, still runs right past the front entrance of the Nature Reserve. For those seeking nostalgia, it’s the perfect stop on a Route 66 road trip through St. Louis—a place to get out and stretch your legs, maybe take a short hike to the Gardenway bus stop.
Points of Interest near Shaw Nature Reserve
The region around Shaw Nature Reserve offers several points of interest along historic Route 66. Here are a few suggestions to add to your itinerary.
- Route 66 State Park, Eureka
- Red Cedar Inn (closed), Pacific
- Jensen Point, Pacific
- Purina Farms, Gray Summit
- Gardenway Motel (closed), Villa Ridge
- The Diamonds Restaurant (closed), Villa Ridge
Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist