At its peak between 1915 and the 1920s, the Jefferson Highway stretched for more than 2,300 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Now, nearly 102 years after its designation, a group of enthusiasts are hoping to keep the memory of one of America’s vintage roadways alive.
Over the weekend, more than 40 members of the Jefferson Highway Association gathered in Denison for the organization’s sixth annual conference. The event featured talks by experts on the historical roadway and along the segments that cross through Texoma.
“The goal was essentially to go through the Louisiana Purchase to Winnipeg, Canada,” Association President Glenn Smith said. “At the time, roads were all done by the counties, cities, communities or private groups. Tourism was unheard of because you couldn’t go far in a car.”
The event was capped off Friday with a proclamation by Denison Mayor Jared Johnson designating the week as Jefferson Highway week. A marker was also placed in downtown to signify the importance of the route to Denison’s history.
Work on the roadway started in 1915 as the Jefferson Highway Commission traveled along the proposed route and encouraged the individual communities to start work on connections between each point. During the visit to Denison, the commission stayed at the original Denison Hotel on Main Street, Smith said.
In the planning phase, 10 cities, including Denison, were chosen as cardinal points on the route due to their statuses as transportation hubs. The current layout of State Highway 91 approximately follows the same route that was once taken by the highway, Smith said.
“That meant everyone between Denison and Shreveport could fuss over the best route,” Smith joked, during a presentation Friday.
Smith, who lives in Muskogee, Oklahoma, another point on the route, said he has travelled about 80 percent of the roadway. When asked about the appeal, he said it has given him the chance to “travel the back roads of America” and visit some of America’s quintessential small towns that he would have otherwise missed on the modern highway system.
“It is like light and dark,” he said. “If you travel in California, every cloverleaf looks the same.”
Smith compared the importance of the Jefferson Highway to that of the well-known Route 66, which travelled east-west across the country.
“Route 66 saved a lot of the small cities from extinction,” he said. “To this day, people still travel that old route out of nostalgia.”
Among the visitors for the event was Lyell Henry, a retired college professor who wrote a book about the highway’s history in his home state of Iowa. For the event, Henry travelled about 800 miles in 14 hours across two days using Interstate 35. On the original route, Henry said it would have taken him about a week to travel the same distance.
“Can you think of a single feature of the 20th Century that had a bigger impact on our lives than the automobile,” he said. “The roadways explain a lot about American life.”
Henry said his interest in the roadway started while he was doing research on the Lincoln Highway, another early route that travelled west. Henry said his interest in the Jefferson Highway was piqued when he found where the two roadways once crossed.
John Akers, site manager for the Eisenhower Birthplace, spoke at the event Friday about Denison’s local history, its connection to former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the city’s role as a rail hub.
“I think it (the interest) is in the nostalgia of how our local road connection began,” he said. “The local towns just wanted to be connected to each other.”
Akers said the city is more well known for its history as a railroad destination, but he was happy to see this part of Denison’s history be recognized.
“It has been overshadowed by the railroad history, but it is nice that it is getting some attention,” he said.