Six miles north of I-44, right on old Route 66, Carthage (pop. 12,688) is a perfect little town, looking for all the world like the model for the idyllic though fictional town of Hill Valley from the Back to the Future movies. The center of Carthage is dominated by the outrageously ornate, circa-1895, limestone Jasper County Courthouse, which features a local history mural and an open-cage elevator in the lobby. The rest of the town is fairly franchise-free, away from the Interstate at least, and the residential areas hold well-maintained Victorian houses.
For fun on the road, there’s a bowling alley, Star Lanes (417/358-2144), at 219 E. 3rd Street, just east of the square. A mile or so west of downtown on Old Route 66, enjoy Hollywood blockbusters in the comfort of your car at the recently reopened 66 Drive-In (417/359-5959), at 17231 Old 66 Boulevard.
If you have a soft spot for hyperbolic sentimentality, one not-to-be-missed monument is the Precious Moments Chapel (daily; 417/358-7599), featuring the wide-eyed characters from the religious greeting card series. The chapel is well-signed, west of US-71 on the southwest edge of Carthage; for the full experience, there’s a sound-and-light show ($16), the “Fountain of Angels.”
The 1940s stainless steel landmark Iggy’s Diner (daily; 417/237-0212) is not far away, at 2400 Grand Avenue, while downtown Carthage has another good place to eat, the Carthage Deli (417/358-8820), 301 S. Main Street, which serves sandwiches and milk shakes in a 1950s-style soda fountain on the northwest corner of the courthouse square. Within a short walk is an elegant B&B, the Leggett House ($85; 417/358-0683), at 1106 Grand Avenue, and an old Route 66 landmark: the glowing red-and-green neon sign of the Boots Motel, 107 S. Garrison Street. Clark Gable stayed here, and it remained a welcoming, family-run place until recently, but was closed and “For Sale” at time of writing.