This  blog series explores the historic Jefferson Highway Heritage Byway and its connection to Mason City, Iowa.

It was pointed out to me recently that a great number of people are totally oblivious to the blue and white JH sign. Or if they have noticed, they have no idea what it means or its significance.

I’ll admit, I was one of them. I read that MacNider Art Museum would be showing a documentary on the Jefferson Highway, a historical road that ran straight through the center of Mason City. I was intrigued – then enamored.

I wanted to do what these two young travelers did. I wanted to experience the thrill of driving through America’s heartland from Winnipeg, Canada all the way down to New Orleans, Louisiana – not via the interstate, but on the two-lane highways that make up the Jefferson.

Why Those Old Roads Still Matter

While it’s true that numbered roads are more efficient than the dozens of individual colored symbols on telephone poles, and interstates are faster, they don’t evoke a feeling. Only names can evoke a feeling because they incite memories of people, like Mason City’s Hugh H. Shepard and Iowa State Highway Commission Engineer Thomas MacDonald, who lifted Iowa out of the mud and gave us the roads we drive on today.

As early as 1916 Jefferson Highway boosters proved the highway was a safe and easy way for early autos to get from town to town. It opened up new trade and generated new businesses. It created a way for people to break out of the confines of their little town and experience other parts of our nation.

By the 1930s, however, the Jefferson Highway Association and its name on the highway were gone. Its early organizers, including former president Shepard, worried about “anchoring the Jefferson Highway in the collective memory” of future generations.

Soak Up History on Iowa’s Scenic Byways

Shepard and other trail and highway association members needn’t have worried. In 1987 the Iowa legislature picked up where road associations left off. They did it, not by promoting a single road, but by promoting all the old routes that ran through the state.

The Iowa Byways program started as a way to increase state tourism and generate economic development. It worked, and a whole new generation rediscovered Iowa’s roots as they took to the early two-lane highways.

Getting off the fast track and taking to the byways allows travelers to explore small town America, enjoy diverse landscape, panoramic views and soak up cultural heritage at historic sites and national landmarks.

For love of Two-Lane Roads

The resurgence of interest in byway travel may have been the driving force in bringing back Iowa’s road associations, such as the Jefferson Highway Association (JHA) and its predecessor and inspiration, the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA).

The LHA, re-established in 1992, were more than willing to help the new JHA get restarted in 2011. An annual conference is held in different states along the highway and Mason City hosted the national event in June 2023.

Roger Bell, of Muskogee, Oklahoma, is the current JHA President. He admits that he knew nothing about the Jefferson Highway nine years ago, but in the last few years, “I have been trying to reach out to every community along the route.”

“I love highway travel, love being on two-lanes and driving cross country from town to town and discovering heritage and tourism opportunities.” At each place he stops he talks about the Jefferson Highway, even giving group presentations on his own highway research when asked.

Bell was introduced to a mother-daughter team of podcasters a few years ago and since March 2022 has been contributing Jefferson Highway stories to their program. “There is some story related to the Jefferson Highway in every town I’ve been in,” he said. “I’m trying to find creative ways to broaden our [JHA] marketing.”

JHA Sociability Runs and Road Warriors

In the early highway days, trail associations would hold Sociability Runs to promote their route and the Jefferson Highway Association planned quite a few.

The first was held in July 1916. Towns held parades, food was shared, speeches were given and over 4,000 automobiles participated in the caravan, making the drive over rugged terrain.

E.T. Meredith, the principal organizer and first president of the JHA, said the Sociability Runs were a, “…visible demonstration to the people along the route that the Jefferson Highway is a practical, rapidly developing project.”

Then 10 years later a delegation from the northern terminus in Winnipeg, Canada made the trip to the southern terminus in New Orleans in the dead of winter.

“Leaving their home city in midwinter, with the thermometer registering many degrees below zero and ‘blizzard’ weather prevailing, our Canadian visitors renegotiated [the first leg of] their 200-mile trip [to Mason City] strictly according to the schedule arranged in advance and without serious mishap,” the Globe Gazette reported in their Jan. 26, 1926 edition.

Both groups were true road warriors. They displayed ingenuity and fortitude and unprecedented pride in their highway.

This year’s Iowa-Minnesota conference will lead off with a special event.

“We decided to try our hand at a modern “Sociability Run” along the established Jefferson Highway Byway in Iowa. We will begin at the first community to the south in Lamoni, Iowa and then travel a few days together all the way to Mason City,” Bell wrote in the new Jefferson Highway Declaration winter newsletter.

“We expect to see sites of importance along the route, visit community leaders, give presentations, and promote the highway each day of our trip,” Bell said.

Participating vehicles will be decked out with Jefferson Highway car magnets and other promotional materials. Bell said a few car clubs have already expressed interest and the vintage automobiles will provide a true “blast from the past.”

“These little highways still have a lot to offer,” Bell said. “People nowadays go to destinations and they are missing out on the true American experience.”

Next time, in the final chapter in the Jefferson Highway series, will talk about the future of the new JHA, not just in Iowa but across the country.

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