Ozark Stone Architecture on Route 66

Ruth Keenoy

The former Devil’s Elbow Cafe near the Big Piney River
(image courtesy of Joe Sonderman).

Commonly seen along Missouri’s Route 66 are buildings patterned with Ozark stone exteriors – restaurants, cabins, stores, gas stations and houses. Ozark stone buildings are popular on Route 66 for a variety of reasons. Materials were easy to come by and inexpensive to use – particularly in southwestern Missouri where Ozark stone is most plentiful. The eye-catching stonework was a way to attract customers. Architecture was an important part of selling, particularly for businesses along a well-traveled highway such as Route 66.  As the road became increasingly busy and populated with roadside businesses, owners sought ways to attract customers – often the building itself provided the appeal. Regional associations were charming to tourists and local businesses played on this technique. Nothing demonstrated a regional Ozark connection quite as effectively as giraffe stone. A great example that unfortunately burned in the 1970s (and was never rebuilt) is Devil’s Elbow Café. According to Pulaski County historian Terry Primas, local residents referred to the building as “The Alamo” in reference to the building’s “rustic stone” exterior and flame-like stone detail spanning the upper façade.

Piney Beach Cabins near Hooker
(Photo by Ruth Keenoy, 2015)

Situated approximately one-half mile west of the former Devil’s Elbow Café is another example of Ozark stonework along Route 66, the Piney Beach Cabins. Constructed as eight individual stone cabins to serve as a roadside motor court along the “new” Highway 66 in Pulaski County near Hooker’s Cut (a divided four-lane section of the road constructed in the 1940s), each cabin represented an individual state – the eight states that Route 66 extends through (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California). All but one of the original cabins still stands. Piney Beach Cabins are believed to have been constructed using stone that came from property owned the Wells Family. Dallas Wells was a stone cutter who quarried “milky white to deep red” Ozark stone – colors demonstrated in the Piney Beach Cabins (Toops, 1947). After World War II, Dallas and his older brother, Sterling, built a service station and garage near Hooker’s Cut. The family also operated a grocery store near the service station, relocated from the Old Route 66 alignment that was bypassed when the new route opened in the 1940s. The Wells capitalized on their Route 66 location by setting up displays of the cut stone along the highway – it was not only intended to advertise the stone cutting business but to provide a colorful advertisement for the gas station, garage and store owned and operated by the family.

Image of Dallas E. Wells
Dallas E. Wells the stone cutter whose work Piney Beach displays today
(Source: Veterans Magazine, September 1947. Clipping courtesy of Terry Primas and Sherry Wells Ernst — daughter of Dallas E. Wells).

Ozark stonework is frequently referred to as “giraffe” stone because the colorful mortared stone resembles the pattern of a giraffe’s coat. The vernacular building tradition was inexpensive and easy to assemble – two factors that worked exceedingly well, particularly during the Great Depression when money and materials were difficult to obtain. The Ozarks region of Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas provided the source of the colorful rocks used to create the patterned masonry buildings (hence the nickname, Ozark stone). Builders used rocks found close to the surface – “sandstone, limestone and dolomite,” incorporating a building method known as “web wall construction” (Sheals, 2013, p. 12). Utilizing flat stones no more than four inches in width, the stones were stacked in an irregular pattern and mortared together. During times when cement and concrete were hard to come by, mortar was made from lime (crumbled limestone), sand and water and sealed with a ribbon joint which is raised, rounded and smooth. Often builders painted or darkened the mortar to set off the contrasting color of the stones. The finished effect was colorful and no two buildings looked exactly alike.

By the late 1930s, a method known as “split slab” stone cutting had been introduced which utilized larger, thinner pieces of stones as an exterior veneer. The method worked extremely well with giraffe pattern work and made the process less labor intensive. Dallas Wells did not subscribe to the practice, however, continuing to produce stones no less than two (preferably three) inches deep – another indication that his stone work was used for Piney Beach Cabins. In Wells’ view, a building constructed with the thicker stones would “last forever” (Toops, 1947). Certainly in the case of Piney Beach Cabins, the stone has lasted throughout the duration, including a recent flood in 2017 that resulted in all of the cabins being underwater for days. When the river receded, interiors were ruined but the Ozark stone exteriors were unscathed – as colorful and varied as when constructed by owner Riley Davenport in the early 1950s. 

Wagon Wheel Motel (cabins) c. 1940
(Image courtesy of Joe Sonderman)

Ozark stonework is one of the most popular and enduring of Missouri’s vernacular building traditions. Treasures such as these are not infrequent in Missouri but many are endangered. Some have been successfully preserved and are currently in use, such as the Wagon Wheel in Cuba, Missouri, which opened in 1938 and is reportedly the longest continuously operating Route 66 roadside motel in the United States. Others are in serious need of attention and face imminent loss if secure ownership cannot be assured in the near future. One example is Shamrock Court in Sullivan, Missouri, which is vacant and for sale. Each year that passes without an owner provides a greater chance that this building will not be saved. While abandoned Ozark stone buildings may be interesting to observe along Route 66, such properties – if not stabilized – disappear from our roadsides and are a lost opportunity for smaller communities to capitalize on Missouri’s Route 66 tourism.

Shamrock Court, Sullivan
(Photo by Ruth Keenoy, 2014)


Bibliography

Liebs, Chester H. Main Street to Miracle Mile. Boston: Bullfinch Press: 1985.

Primas, Terry. Route 66 in Pulaski County, Missouri – a local history. Duke, MO: Big Piney Productions, 2017.

Schaper, Jo. “Building Giraffes Along Route 66,” Show Me Route 66 Magazine (Volume 23, No. 2, 2013: 11-15.

Sheals, Debbie. “Ozark Rock Masonry in Springfield, [MO], 1910 – 1955,” The Society of Architectural Historians, Missouri Valley Chapter News Letter. 2006, Volume XII:2A: 1-9.

Snider, Becky L. “Wagon Wheel Motel, Café and Station,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. 2005.

Toops, E.N. “The Stone Man of Hooker, Missouri,” Veterans Magazine, September 1947. Clipping provided by Terry Primas/Sherry Wells Ernst.

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