When Hugh H. Shepard, Mason City attorney and former Jefferson Highway Association (JHA) President, presented the highway’s history and road updates to the delegates at the 16th annual convention of the United States Good Roads Association in May 1928, he firmly believed that the entire route would be paved by the end of 1929.

Shepard pointed out that the JHA had done such a good job in selecting its route that it was chosen to be part of the main trunk line system of numbered highways in the United States.

With paving nearly complete, in most states, a JHA advisory committee met in April 1929 and decided to keep the organization going. A month later 20,000 Jefferson Highway maps were ready for free distribution.

“Despite the present day system of numbering roads, sentimental and historical significance attaches to the name of the Jefferson Highway. It is the aim of our association, through publication of maps and by many other organized efforts, to retain the identity and prestige of the Jefferson Highway,” JHA President George McInnich said.

Although temporarily forgotten, historic auto trails and their names are being recognized thanks to state and federal Byway programs begun in the late 1980s. New interest in these old roads led to the reorganization of the Lincoln Highway Association in 1992 and the JHA in 2011.

The JHA’s New Era

But even before the JHA reorganized, many local museums, libraries and historical societies undertook the task of identifying and studying historical resources related to the Jefferson Highway and its route.

The Powers Museum in Carthage, Missouri, the hometown of the JHA’s first manager, J.D. Clarkson, requested information and cooperation from all the museums and historical societies along the entire Jefferson route. With the information they gathered they launched a website in 2008 featuring almost all of the original Jefferson Highway Declaration (later named Modern Highway and Pine to Palms) magazines from 1916 to 1922.

Iowa’s Department of Transportation also maintains a website providing historical information about the Jefferson Highway and many of the other early auto trails in Iowa.

Then, thanks to the tireless efforts of the late Mike Conlin, interested individuals met in Lee’s Summit, Missouri on March 19, 2011 to discuss the re-birth of the JHA for the purpose of promoting the preservation of the Jefferson Highway in the US and Canada.

Since then, annual conferences have been held in different cities along the route of the Jefferson Highway each year. 

Sandra Huemann-Kelly and her husband Mike Kelly, 2023 JHA conference coordinators, didn’t know much about the historic highway themselves until 2011.

“We embarked on a business venture at Reed-Niland Corner in Colo, Iowa, which is at the crossroads of the Lincoln and Jefferson Highways,” Sandra said. “… we quickly learned of [its] rich history and importance in the area as part of the unique section where the Lincoln and Jefferson Highways share the same routing from Colo, IA to Nevada or Ames (depending on the date of the route you are following).”

A year later the reorganized JHA held their first conference in Ames, IA and the Kelly’s hosted the Awards Ceremony at Niland’s Cafe.

“Historic highways are of great interest to us and we feel they play a role in telling the story of an area as well as an era. Whenever possible, we travel the ‘two lanes’, including the Jefferson Highway,” Sandra said. “The resurgence of the Jefferson Highway may very well be a vehicle to once again bring people to downtowns where architectural gems, retail trade and history await.”

Other historic road aficionados, like Ren Holland, are working to recreate the original route map in their state. Holland, with the help of Itasca State Park Naturalists Connie Cox and Sandra Lichter, traced the original route of the Jefferson Highway as it wound its way around the hills and lakes of the Minnesota park. He presented his findings when the Lake Country Scenic Byway hosted the 3rd annual JHA International Conference in Park Rapids, Minnesota in 2014.

Meanwhile, Emmy Stidham, a town history preservationist, was one of the first to rediscover the Jefferson Highway route as it wound through her town in Checotah, OK. She pushed town leaders to install an archway sign for the route and to create community route signage. She was one of the speakers at the 2015 JHA centennial conference in Muskogee, OK.

Also in Muskogee, the current JHA President Roger Bell said, “We are marking the route in Oklahoma. It’s been a three-year effort, going to the state capital, talking to politicians.” But the time and effort really paid off.

In early May 2021 Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt signed a bill officially designating the route that largely follows State Highway 69 as the “Historic Jefferson Highway Route.” The bill stated the Jefferson Highway is the oldest highway to pass through Oklahoma, spanning from Kansas to Texas borders. Nationally, it is one of the earliest highways in the country, completed nearly a decade before Route 66.

Since then, interest in the JHA has been, “… slowly growing, community to community. We keep pushing on,” Bell said. “It’s like a seed. You never know when it’s going to grow.” Today, the organization is 200 members strong and still growing.

Through his own travels along the Jefferson Highway, promoting the route or collecting stories, Bell said he has seen more people traveling on it again. “A new phenomenon to come out of this is people interested in camping along the route [again],” Bell said. And like any good road promoter he has been wondering, “How can we take advantage of this.”

Hmm, new Jefferson Highway route guides may be in order.

With the new Jefferson Highway Association re-blazing the Pine to Palms highway from Winnipeg, Canada to New Orleans, Louisiana the hope of the early highway organizers is being fulfilled in that the Lincoln and Jefferson, “shall be nationally appreciated, and that the location and memory of these highways shall be perpetuated to posterity.”

Note from the Author

It has been my sincere honor to have been asked to research and write about the Jefferson Highway and its early pioneers, the Jefferson Highway Association.

While the internet is a useful tool, I wouldn’t have gotten far without the wealth of information on the Jefferson Highway website and especially from Lyell D. Henry Jr.’s book The Jefferson Highway Blazing The Way From Winnipeg To New Orleans and his article, Following in the Lincoln’s Wake: The Jefferson Highway, which appeared in The Lincoln Highway Forum, Summer 2008 and was reposted on the JHA website.

The Kinney Pioneer Museum in Mason City was also a tremendous help in allowing me (out of season) access to their wealth of information on the “Iowa Bus Queen” Helen Schultz; Mason City’s two Portland cement plants; and more importantly Hugh H. Shepard’s scrapbooks of newspaper clippings from the 1920s.

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