Last updated: June 6, 2022
A map of the Texas Panhandle looks a little like a checkerboard with its grid of mostly straight roads, uncongested highway stretching through bare, undulating Texas terrain. The open road across expansive landscapes captures the Route 66 experience. That kind of driving was what took thousands of motorists to McLean, Texas during its heyday. The McLean Commercial Historic District is a remarkable time capsule on the Mother Road. Roll down Route 66 today, cross under I-40 at exit 146, and you’ll find streets that remain true to their mid-20th century appearance, a commercial district created and defined largely by the presence of Route 66.
In 1927, when Route 66 arrived in town, McLean was still shipping livestock and oil by rail. Running down Main Street, the new United States highway shifted the town’s focus from rail to road and ensured McLean’s prosperity for decades to come. During the golden age of Route 66, the little Panhandle town boasted 22 auto-related businesses, including repair shops and dealerships. Three quarters of those businesses were service stations. In McLean, gas stations literally drove the local economy.
In 1929, Phillips Petroleum chose McLean as the location for its first Texas station. The building’s quaint Tudor Revival design complete with shutters and an exterior brick chimney reflected the trend of building gas stations that looked like cottages. The station operated for five decades before closing in 1977. It has been restored and is well worth a visit. Look for the shield-shaped, yellow and black Phillips 66 sign at 218 West First Street.
At this station and numerous others, the classic cars of the 1940s and 50s rolled in for service and gas. With plumped out fenders that suggested childhood mumps, these cars sported toothy chrome grills and bumpers that looked as if they could shove around small houses. By the 1950s, McLean service stations welcomed sleeker model cars with unforgettable fins, white-walled tires, foot-wide tail lights, and long, low lines accentuated by chrome edges. If McLean had had two stop lights in the 50s, the Chevrolet Bel Air might have stretched from one of them clear back to the other.
McLean also offered motels, tourist cabins, cafes, and restaurants to travelers. The earliest tourist cabins are nearly all razed, but the Cactus Inn Motel--yes, the sign is shaped like a cactus--is still in business. The Avalon Theater adds ambiance to the district too, as do the Devil’s Rope (barbed wire) and Old Route 66 Museum at 100 Kingsley Street. The museum is housed in the building where another McLean enterprise once operated--a bra manufacturing company. Motorists arriving in McLean were once greeted by a colorful billboard announcing that they had entered “The Uplift Capital of the World.”
By the 1970s, the growth of nearby Amarillo had eclipsed McLean, and Interstate 40 was crossing the Panhandle. McLean business owners fought hard to keep the town alive, knowing that a bypass would draw away the tourist trade they needed to survive. In the end, McLean was the last Texas Route 66 town bypassed by Interstate 40. Businesses closed. Population declined. Today only about 800 people live in McLean.
This very lack of growth is why the town can be experienced as an authentic step back in time. McLean’s collection of early-20th century commercial buildings, especially its gas stations, provides a strong sense of time and place. The district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
The McLean Commercial Historic District is along North Main, First, and Railroad Sts. roughly bounded by Railroad, Lowe, Second, and Gray Sts. in McLean, TX.
See the McLean Commercial Historic District National Register nomination form.
The former Masonic hall at 220 North Main St., now houses City Hall.
For more information, call 806-779-2481.
The McLean Alanreed Historical Museum is located at 116 South Main St.
For more information, call 806-779-2731.
The Devil’s Rope Museum at 100 Kingsley St. is not in the historic district but is a good local stop that houses the Texas Old Route 66 Museum.
For more information, call 806-779-2225 or visit the Devil's Rope Museum website.