Highways can make or break communities. When the Highway 371 bypass recently went through Baxter instead of Brainerd, Minnesota, Brainerd citizens and business owners were understandably concerned about the lost traffic. Jumping back 85 years, to 1916, the same concerns were expressed over the routing of the national Jefferson Highway through Minnesota. The full Jefferson Highway route ran from Winnipeg, Canada, to New Orleans, Louisiana. There were two loops in the highway through Kansas and Missouri. Depending upon the loop driven, the entire route was either 2,278 or 2,313 miles long.
Morrison County was slated to have a piece of the Jefferson Highway route. The highway was expected to run north from St. Cloud through Royalton and Little Falls, and then to Brainerd. Local residents did not sit idly by when the City of Moorhead made a bid to reroute the highway from St. Cloud through Fergus Falls to Moorhead. An editorial on April 27, 1916 in the Little Falls Daily Transcript succinctly states local sentiment. “We feel like saying to those fellows who are out to get our Jefferson highway away from us: ‘Gwan and get a highway of your own!’”
Morrison County Commissioners pledged their support of the route by agreeing to fix the only bad stretch of road in the county between Cushing and Lincoln. (LFDT – May 3, 1916) Two plucky members of the Little Falls Automobile Club, J. K. Martin and R. B. Millard, got involved with swaying the Jefferson Highway Commission’s decision regarding the route. They attended various regional meetings about the highway and spoke with representatives from St. Cloud, Staples, Wadena and other communities along a proposed route that would lead to Morrison County, rather than to other areas of the state. In persuading these communities to fight to be on the route, they were told that it would mean “getting a hard-surfaced road all the way, 1,000 foreign cars daily, at a conservative estimate, during the tourist season.” (LFDT – May 4, 1916) After a Jefferson Highway meeting in Wadena, county representatives from Morrison, Sherburne, Stearns, Wadena, Todd, Benton, and Hubbard, became members in the Central Minnesota Jefferson Highway Association in order to have the highway run through their communities. Anyone between Clear Lake and Itasca Park who was interested in the highway could also become a member. (LFDT – May 11, 1916)
After much rangling and many tours of several proposed routes, the Jefferson Highway Commission chose the route from St. Cloud to Royalton to Little Falls to Staples to Wadena and beyond. The announcement for the chosen route was made in the July 25, 1916 issue of the Little Falls Daily Transcript. R.B. Millard, who was on a tour of the Jefferson Highway, wrote a letter to the Transcript telling of the moment the route was chosen. An excerpt reads:
“Nobody knew or had an inkling of what the decision would be. After a splendid talk by Mr. Clarkson [Jefferson Highway manager] the award was made. As Mr. Clarkson read St. Paul, Minneapolis, Elk River, St. Cloud—by that time no one was breathing the tension was so great—the speaker paused, how long, I could not say, but if someone had suddenly let go and yelled it would have been a distinct relief. When the next town was read, Little Falls, we who weer (sic) representing the Central route, L. H. Rice and Wm. Tabor of Park Rapids, J. K. Martin and myself, felt that after six months of strenuous effort we had won out.”
By November 1916, J. K. Martin went on to serve as a director on the Minnesota Jefferson Highway Association. Three other Minnesota residents were chosen as directors for the state association of the highway.
The Jefferson Highway was a designated national highway, with each community along its route responsible for its maintenance. At the time, the federal government was operating under a constitutional law that did not allow it to build highways, so designating existing roads for a national route was its only option. Communities also had to raise a total of $80,000 to administer the national highway. This was to be done by popular subscription, but the Morrison County Commissioners appropriated $324 to the fund rather than try to approach county residents for the money.
Much of the Jefferson Highway route through Morrison County eventually became Highway 10. A few pieces of the old route still exist, especially near Cushing, Minnesota.
In the next newsletter, discussion of the Jefferson Highway will continue with the Palm to Pine tour. Readers who have memories of the highway or tour are encouraged to call the museum and share your stories.
by Mary Warner
Copyright 2001, Morrison County Historical Society
For more Jefferson Highway info, check www.jeffersonhighway.com.
Here is a map of the Minnesota portion of the Jefferson Highway.