The Jefferson Highway Association is holding its 5th annual conference in Carthage, Missouri, April 29 & 30, 2016. Full conference details are available on the Jefferson Highway Website or by calling the Powers Museum at 417-237-0456, or the Carthage Convention and Visitors Bureau at 417- 359-8181. A schedule of public events is listed on the Powers Museum website
The original Jefferson Highway Association (JH) was formed in 1915 to build a highway from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to New Orleans, Louisiana. The highway was the idea of Edwin T. Meredith* (of Iowa), publisher of Successful Farming and Better Homes and Gardens (and later Secretary of Agriculture under President Woodrow Wilson), who thought the highway would be economically beneficial to the region’s farmers.
An organizational meeting was held in New Orleans with representatives from all the Louisiana Purchase states to formalize a group for the purpose of constructing an international highway. This meeting also determined the cardinal points of the new highway including St. Joseph, Kansas City and Joplin within the state of Missouri. The road was named for President Thomas Jefferson.
The JH organization eventually established headquarters in St. Joseph, Missouri, and continued promoting the JH route for several years after the nation’s highways were coordinated into the federal system in 1926 that we know today (in particular, the basic system for numbering highways). Although a North-South highway, portions of the Jefferson from Carthage, Missouri, to Miami, Oklahoma, became incorporated into U.S. Highway 66 sometimes referred to as “The Main Street of America.” Although not always the exact alignment, U. S. Highways 69 and 71 in this region also spring from the original Jefferson Highway auto trail. In fact, U. S. 71 became known as “The Broadway of America,” making Carthage “The Crossroads of America,” an advertising slogan it used for many decades of tourism promotion.
Flash forward to March of 2011 when interested individuals met in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, to discuss the re-birth of the Jefferson Highway Association. The Jefferson Highway Association (JH), a Missouri-based non-profit organization devoted to the research and promotion of the former auto trail named the Jefferson Highway (1915-1929). They wrote the current by-laws and elected the first executive board of officers at this meeting. The organization publishes a quarterly newsletter and encourages communities along the historic route to research and promote the history of the highway. Current projects include mapping and marking the old route for cultural tourism promotion.
This year’s conference, marking the 100th anniversary of specific route designations through seven states, is being held in Carthage, Missouri. Carthage and Jasper County were the locations of many of this area’s earliest paved roads due to the use of mining chat and other waste products of the Tri-State Mining District. It also was the home of James Douglas Clarkson who, in 1916, became the first General Manager of the Jefferson Highway (appointed by E. T. Meredith*). Until his retirement in 1922, Clarkson along with his wife Ida Cornell Clarkson, could be found riding up and down the Jefferson Highway promoting its route and advocating for construction of “good roads.” Other Jasper County promoters of this work were John D. Malang (of Malang Road in Joplin), Thomas Cunningham, Allen McReynolds, Charles Blair, and many others including student groups and women’s organizations.
Among the conference speakers are historians and authors Susan Croce Kelly and Bill Hart. Another historian and author, Lyell Henry of Iowa, will be holding a public book signing for his newest title (and the first published book on Jefferson Highway history) at Red Oak II northeast of Carthage (April 29, 2-3pm). Other conference activities include a group bus tour on April 30th on original roads of the Jefferson Highway from Carthage to Lamar and from Carthage to Joplin. An optional post-conference event will feature a caravan drive from Saginaw to Noel on original Ozark Trails and Jefferson Highway roads. Saturday’s JHA banquet and awards ceremony will feature a presentation of one of James Douglas Clarkson’s speeches in the presence of one of his granddaughters who will be present at the conference. Friday night’s entertainment will include the Missouri Stang Gang’s informal Pine to Palm Midpoint Cruise-in on the inner ring of the Jasper County Courthouse square (open to public, 5 – 8 pm).
* Today many readers may recognize Meredith name as the publisher of Midwest Living. The Meredith family is still involved with this business.