Back in the day, truck stops were a traveler’s oasis for fuel, food, rest, and other services, and a few still have that focus. Recently, John stopped by the new TA truck stop at exit 46 in Mt. Vernon, MO and saw his old friend, the owner, Brent Wilmoth, and then called me to introduce us. It was a great conversation about people we knew in the fuel hauling business, but what impressed me the most was that the owner himself was out pumping fuel and washing windows on the trucks at their location. I thought there might be a story, and I was right. And the more I dug, the more I found.
This truck stop is located on the old Ozark Trail Highway, which was a short-lived (1915-1926) but significant cross-country transportation artery. It was a by-product of the fast developing technology that created the automobile and tourism industries and enabled the agricultural and trucking industries to thrive. The Ozark Trail was the foresight of its promoters in developing a system of good roads to bring farmer’s products to market and tourist dollars to other destinations. It began with W.H. “Coin” Harvey, an entrepreneur and intellectual, who first organized The Ozark Trails Association. He wanted to bring the tourists to his luxury resort in Arkansas, but he also had a vision of what it could mean to other businesses.
W.H. and other trailblazers saw the possibilities of community growth and prosperity through a system of marked roads linking towns, cities, and states. In the beginning they created a uniform system of marking both telephone and telegraph poles (and when necessary, trees) along the route with the letters O.T. (Ozark Trail). These markings later gave way to Harvey’s vision of 20-foot tall obelisks. An obelisk is a stone pillar, typically having a square or rectangular base and a pyramidal top and set up as a monument or landmark. These obelisks had compass points on each side pointing the way to cities and points of interest. At one time there were 21 or more of these obelisks along the Ozark Trail, but only two of the originals exist today.
Much of the Ozark Trail was later incorporated into Highway 66 when the federal government first introduced the numbered highway system. Route 66 was one of the original highways in the United States Numbered Highway System, which was officially established on November 11, 1926, with road signs erected the following year. Most of those original obelisks on the Ozark Trail may be gone today, but you will find a huge 66-foot tall replica of one at the TA truck stop in Mt. Vernon, MO. In fact, it was built there to be an iconic reminder of the Ozark Trail and help this “new” truck stop have an old school vibe. But there is a lot more to talk about before we get into all that.
In 1953, Dwight Wilmoth wanted to become an entrepreneur and work for himself, and he chose the petroleum business to do this. He opened his first Texaco gas station in Mt. Vernon, MO on 166, a spur off Route 66, which was a bypass between Springfield and Joplin, MO. It seems most of the time a dad starts a business and then his son joins him, but this time it was the other way around, and Dwight’s father Frank later joined the business his son started.
In 1959 they got information about an interstate that was being planned. Seeing the opportunity this presented, they bought land along the route (I-44) and built a truck stop. The original truck stop opened in 1960 where the TA on the west side of I-44 sits today. They rebuilt the truck stop in 1970 because of the increased business the new interstate created. Continuing to grow, they later added another truck stop on Route 66 in Miller, MO and two convenience stores. Back then the truck stops were smaller, but most of them had a good sit-down restaurant, and most travelers believed (rightly so) that the best food was where the truckers stopped.
The family business was growing, and Dwight’s sons eventually joined in (Greg in the early 70s and Brent in the late 70s). Growing up in the business, they learned from their father to respect and appreciate the drivers. They also learned to make the most of the opportunities that came along and take chances, which is a trait true entrepreneurs use to create some of the most successful businesses. In 1990 they were the first to franchise with the Travel Centers of America (TA). TA was starting to expand and offered the Wilmoths the opportunity – and they took it. TA had also bought a truck stop in Strafford, MO and, in 1997, the family purchased that location, as well.
In 1987, the family bought Nick’s Transport, a logistics petroleum based trucking company, to better service their stations and help others in their area to deliver petroleum products. They grew that business from five trucks to 120 trucks and 140 trailers and then sold it in 2008. They grew the wholesale fuel business, Ozark Mountain Energy, to three quarter billion gallons of petroleum sales a year. In 2020 they merged the business with Offen Petroleum out of Denver, CO, but kept an ownership share in that business.
Wanting to build a new facility at the Mt. Vernon exit, they purchased 79 acres across the interstate from the current location. Brent set out to build a modern-day truck stop with a lot of thought put into it for the driver’s needs like it was back in the day. Talking about iconic old truck stops, a few that came up included The Boise Stage Stop in Boise, ID, Tucson Truck Terminal (TTT) in Tucson, AZ, and Jubitz Truck Stop in Portland, OR. Their vision was to build something that would become iconic in its own right and stand the test of time like these places have.
Drawing from the area, it was decided an obelisk was going to be the calling card of the new location. At 66 feet tall, the mere size and uniqueness of it makes a huge statement. There are more than 30 destinations, pointing in all four directions, engraved on the sides of the obelisk. There is also an exact 10-foot tall granite replica of the obelisk at the entrance of the travel center. There is also an Ozark Trail historical sign set in the green space near the obelisk.
The main focuses of the new truck stop are cleanliness, spaciousness, and friendliness – they want it to be a home away from home for their customers. Years ago, truck stops offered full service where they would pump your fuel, check the oil, and wash your windows. At the Ozarks Travel Center, you can see Brent and his son Eric out there helping fuel trucks and washing windows! There are two entrances – the back one is for truckers, complete with all the amenities, and the front is for the 4-wheelers, with all the amenities for them, including 52 fueling pumps and a nice gift shop.
There is a big smoker with fresh smoked meats locally sourced every day, and a nice sit-down area to enjoy your meal. The smell is divine and will absolutely draw you in! There is also a state-of-the-art 3-bay maintenance shop, which includes a lounge area with a big screen TV and theater seating for the drivers to relax in while they get work done on their truck or trailer. The showers are enormous, and definitely designed for the driver’s comfort.
Brent’s sons, Eric and Kyle, and Greg’s son, Chase, like their fathers, grew up in the business and are the 4th generation, and their children make a high probability for a 5th generation to come to work in the family business, as well, eventually. When was the last time you read or heard about a 5th generation truck stop business! It truly is amazing, and a testimony as to how awesome this family is to be able keep things going (and growing) for over 70 years.
What are the odds that while I was sitting at a table in the 83 Diner in York, PA, working on this story, and I look up and see the back of an Ozarks Travel Center t-shirt walking away from me? I went over to the gentleman, who I later found out was named Terry Raper, and told him about the story I was working on. He was kind enough to chat a little (and let me take a picture), telling me that he had seen Brent fueling trucks, so he went inside and bought the shirt.
If you are running down I-44 in Missouri, stop in at exit 46 and check out the Ozarks Travel Center. Be sure to tell Brent “hello” and enjoy some old-time hospitality at this oasis for truckers on the Ozarks Trail. Take some pictures of the obelisk and let yourself go back in time while you enjoy some great BBQ. I guarantee you will not regret stopping and will stop again often.