The Jefferson Highway - Winnipeg to New Orleans

The Jefferson Highway - Winnipeg to New Orleans

Pine to Palm


In November of 1915 a new Highway was organized to honor the name of Thomas Jefferson for his part in the Louisiana Purchase and to provide a great north and south highway.

E. T. Meredith, former Secretary of Agriculture, and founder of Meredith Publishing in Des Moines, IA, was the man with the idea and dream of this highway, but for sentimental reasons, and because it was November, the organization meeting was held in New Orleans.

Originally the highway was to be entirely within the Louisiana Purchase, but when the time came to lay the course it went off grid in Texas and Minnesota.

The original International Guide informed motorists that as soon as the road could be laid, you could travel in any weather through seven states. This statement would come back to haunt them!

Two thousand metal signs and over twenty thousand pole marks and monograms were ordered for the new highway.

Listed in the International Guide were the Franklin County towns of Chapin, Hampton and Sheffield, together with nineteen other Iowa towns.

The International Guide describes the highway as ‘winding its way south from Winnipeg, the Jefferson traverses the rich area of the great glacial deposits in Manitoba, through Minnesota southward until it comes to the up-thrust of the Ozark Mountains, around the western spurs till it crosses the Red River into Texas at Denison. From there it takes a southeasterly course through Louisiana over the alluvial deposit of the Red and Mississippi rivers.’

One of the highways “heroes” was Hugh Shepard, an attorney in Mason City. He was responsible for bringing the highway to North Iowa. He represented Iowa at a meeting held in November 1915 whereby the Jefferson Highway Association was formed. This was a group of people interested in promoting the highway and raising the funds needed for its construction and maintenance. Mr. Shepard was named international president of the association in 1925.

The Jefferson Highway was registered September 25, 1916. In December, the Iowa Highway Commission officially designated it as the Jefferson Highway.

Longtime area residents remember that telephone poles were used to nail up Jefferson Highway signs. The Jefferson Highway markers consisted of an 18-inch field of white, with a six-inch border of blue top and bottom and a blue letter JH painted in the center of the white field. Some telephone poles sported as many as eight highway signs.

The early “trails” as the roads were called had, at certain times of the year, deep ruts filled with water, sometimes making the “roads” impassible. At times planks actually had to be laid down so cars could get through. Farmers took turns pulling cars and vehicles out of the mud. The farmers earned one or two dollars each time, which was a lot of money back then.

An early promotional ad read as follows: ‘It is the youngest Highway and yet in a little over a year…it has forced itself into a position second only to the premier highway of the country. A tour over this Highway will be an experience never to be forgotten’. This was quite true as many weeks during the year the trail was quite impossible to travel making it “memorable”!

A push was made to gravel the Jefferson Highway in Franklin County in 1920. In July of 1920 it was announced that the Jefferson Highway would be graveled from Hampton to the Cerro Gordo county line by 1921 and south to the Hardin county line. Before they could start graveling, however, they had to drain some areas and do some grading. The hope was that by the next election travelers would vote to pave the whole area.

The 1995 Globe Gazette carried a story about the graveling of the Jefferson Highway and quoted Marjorie Pangburn of rural Northwood as she remembered the highway because it ran through the middle of the Pangburn farm. “My Mother scolded me for going out and talking to the men” she said. “I was eight or nine years old at the time.” She was especially fascinated by the mules, as she had never seen one before. Her Grandfather, Thines Gabriel, who settled on the farm in 1863 offered to let the road crew water their mules. When the highway was completed, the traffic was so heavy that the family was fearful of being hit by a car, as they had to cross the road to get to their barn.

The Jefferson Highway was well maintained and graded but accidents were very numerous, as many as two a day in that area. In 1925, Hugh Shepard, the International President, wrote to the State Highway Commission that six people had been killed on the Jefferson Highway on one Sunday alone. There were soft spots and loose gravel, which caused many accidents. More signs were put up; a white sign with a large black letter “D” meaning danger was place 200 feet from the danger spot.

Although the road was well maintained for the time, terrible frost boils between Sheffield and Cerro Gordo County were a problem and grass grew between the deep automobile (ruts) tracks. The portion from Sheffield’s Hillside Cemetery to Cerro Gordo county line was especially treacherous.

In 1926 from south of Hampton to southeast of Sheffield was such a sea of mud that planks had to be laid crosswise to enable motorists to pass. One passenger bus was stuck near Sheffield for an entire week and was finally pulled out by a farmer with a team of horses.

The highway brought commerce to the towns along its path as it went into towns like Sheffield and Chapin. Car repair shops, gas stations and hotels were suddenly in demand. October 28, 1930 a bronze plate was unveiled to celebrate the completion of the paving of the Jefferson Highway across Iowa and Minnesota.

One hundred years later the National Jefferson Highway Association is working to get highway signs installed along the highway from Winnipeg to New Orleans. Since the idea for the road started in Iowa, the project is starting in Iowa. The DOT has a Heritage Byway Program and they will put up the signs.

In Iowa, the Jefferson Highway generally follows Highway 65 in the north part of the state and then crosses over at Colo to Ames and follows Highway 69 through the south half of Iowa. In February 2015 the Franklin County supervisors approved the Resolution of support endorsing an application to the Iowa DOT for the designation of the Jefferson Highway as a State Heritage Byway. It is expected the only cost/time placed on the county would be in case of damage to a sign or post.

The Interstate Trail established in 1911 was a precursor of the Jefferson Highway. The route was St. Paul - Des Moines – St Joseph - Kansas City. The museum was given a sign from this highway discovered by Howard Muhlenbruch of Hampton in a grove on his farm, two miles north of Hampton.

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