Jefferson to be Heritage Byway?

Feb 12, 2015

A new “Heritage Byway” could soon be coming to Iowa. Extending from Northwood, down to Lamoni, the Jefferson Highway will soon be 100 years old, and promoters are working to keep the legend alive. 

Around 17,000 vehicles a day travel between Indianola and Des Moines on Highway 65-69. Old-timers knew it as the Jefferson Highway. Long before Interstate-35, it was the nation’s primary north-south road, from Winnipeg to New Orleans. The various routes still exist, but the historical meaning is quickly fading.

An original Jefferson Highway marker in Colo
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“My business was on the Jefferson Highway for 40-some years and I did not realize that. I think that’s almost a crime.”

Loring Miller is with Rotary International, calling for a couple hundred “heritage byway” signs to be erected along the Jefferson’s 190 mile route through Iowa. It passes more than 20 communities.  The only other special designation like this commemorates the better-known Lincoln Highway, which straddles Iowa horizontally.

“If the centennial year passed by us without the Jefferson Highway being recognized as a major contributor to early transportation, then indeed that highway identity would be lost for all time.”

A century ago, too many dirt roads became mired in mud. Iowa publisher Edwin T. Meredith was a promoter of good roads and founded the Jefferson Highway Association in 1915. He lobbied for a decent, long-distance highway that would connect local traffic, boost agriculture and make Iowans worldlier.

“It’s easy to find the use of the highway for purposes of robbing banks.  Dillinger, there was a celebrated bank robbery in Mason City. He would have been using the Jefferson Highway.”

Iowa City author Lyell Henry is writing a book on the Jefferson.

“And of course the highway became a favorite place for playing games too, like setting speed records, or car races, and of course that is intimately tied to a very rapidly rising  accident rate.”

Neon still beckons customers to a 1948 lodge
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Old highway landmarks still prosper yet today: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Park Inn in Mason City, the restored motel, café and gas station at Colo, where the Jefferson intersects with the Lincoln, and many other remnants from a bygone era.

Much of it is still two-lanes as it runs through eight states, looking much like it did in the early 20th century. Heritage tourism could be down the road for the Jefferson.

“There are more and more people who are interested in these things who want to get out, they want to drive on the old roads, they want to have a sense that they’re exploring something of significance and the signs will guide them in that respect.”

The Rotarians hope the heritage byway signs could start appearing this summer, and are enlisting support from cities and counties along the way. Two enthusiasts from Leon, Loring Miller, and friend Jack Van Laar, even recorded a CD to commemorate the road.

(Excerpt of song “Our Trip to New Orleans”)

Along the Jefferson Highway, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.