Roads in our rear view mirror
In 1915, Edwin T. Meredith came up with the idea of a transcontinental highway, patterned after the recently built Lincoln Highway which ran east and west across the nation. His dream was that this new highway should run north and south from New Orleans to Winnipeg, Canada, passing through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
The plan, or at first three different plans, as pertained to Minnesota listed three different routes, termed the east, central and west, with the central route running from the southern border, roughly paralleling Interstate 35W to Minneapolis then to St. Cloud and on to Wadena, roughly following U.S. Highway 10. There was much discussion pertaining to this with politics involved but eventually the central route won out, probably shaped by the location of Itasca State Park, which was a huge tourist attraction. However, from Wadena on there seems to be a discrepancy. The Internet maps show it running to Detroit Lakes then on Highway 59 to St. Vincent and on to Winnipeg.
The Wadena Pioneer Journal portrays a different picture. Showing it as running from Verndale to Wadena on what is called the old road, which comes into Wadena past Homecrest from the east on Garfield, then a right on Jefferson Street to the Aldrich Avenue corner then west one block to First Street SW and then right across the railroad track and journeying on out of town on Second Street NW, paralleling present U.S. Highway 71 to Itasca State park and Bemidji on to Winnipeg. Bear in mind that there was a crossing at that time where the Depot is today. I presume that this is where our Jefferson Street got its name.
Of course every town in Minnesota wanted to be on the highway for the tourist traffic it would generate. A Jefferson Highway Association was formed in Minnesota with each county participating. A J. D. Clarkson was the Minnesota chairman and Dr. Paul Kenyon of Wadena the county chairman. The association financed itself by assessing each county $9 per mile of road in their county. This worked well for a few years but eventually most counties failed to pay their assessments.
The highway was known at the southern end in New Orleans as the "Palm to Pine" highway and from Winnipeg south the "Pine to Palm" highway. It totaled 1,532 miles in length and in later years was termed the best transcontinental highway because part of it was surfaced. The road was a reality from 1915 to 1928 when the state of Minnesota and the federal government designed and implemented a new road numbering system. It is interesting that in present times different organizations have sprung up, particularly in the south interested in restoring and commemorating parts of this highway.
In early days in Wadena County there were markers on every corner and later there were cement mile markers. It would seem that there might be some of these around, hidden away in somebody's barn, but I have never run across any.
As the number of automobiles increased new roads came into being. In 1918, the Pershing Highway, named after General John Pershing, Commander of the AEF in World War I, came into being running from Winnipeg to Wadena on the Jefferson Highway and then south to Sauk Centre and through Mankato.
The Black Diamond Highway ran from Duluth to Fargo, going through Wadena and of course later became Highway 2 and still later Highway 10 and 210 as we know them today. The road was designated by an 18-inch square white sign, with a Black Diamond in the middle.
Under a similar arrangement the Iowa, Minnesota and Itasca Park route was established in a meeting at Glenwood, Minn. The road ran roughly where Highway 29 is today until reaching Wadena where it joined the Jefferson Highway proceeding on to Itasca Park.
Our present Highway 71 was originally Highway 4 and follows closely to the route of the old Jefferson Highway.
In 1918, Asher Murray of Wadena suggested an automobile tax based on the horsepower of the vehicle. In 1924, Highway Commissioner Babcock adopted this idea for financing the Minnesota Highway System.
Also that year a group of citizens from New Orleans traveled the route to Winnipeg stopping at every town en route, giving speeches, and the citizens of that town would travel with them to the next town. At Menahga the group was served blueberries and cream as Menahga was known as the Blueberry capital of the world. Also Menahga was given the slogan "The Gateway to the Pines" which continues to this day.
A newspaper article of that time commented on the good condition of the Jefferson Highway from Park Rapids to the Wadena county line, but the fact that south of Menahga there was a two-mile stretch so rough that a can of cream could be turned into butter, and that this stretch was "Murder in the First Degree."
Now of course a new road is known in Minnesota "The Great River Road" running to Itasca Park and following the course of the Mississippi River.