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History of the Interstate Trail, Jefferson Highway and Jefferson Association

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Jefferson Highway Association is organized

Edwin Thomas The Jefferson Highway and formation of the Jefferson Highway Association was the brainchild of businessman and political activist Edwin Thomas (E.T.) Meredith of Des Moines. Largely inspired by the Lincoln Highway, Meredith and his colleagues sought to create a sister route to the Lincoln Highway with the Jefferson Highway. Meredith was an instrumental good roads promoter for both Iowa and the nation, and he was pivotal in the establishment of the Jefferson Highway as president of the Jefferson Highway Association and later as vice president of the Iowa Good Roads Association.

Edwin Thomas Meredith

Edwin Thomas Meredith was born at Avoca, Iowa, Dec. 23, 1876, the eldest of seven children of Thomas Oliver and Minerva J. (Marsh) Meredith. For several years, his father was a farm implement dealer at Avoca.

Highland Park CollegeIn 1892 “Ed” was sent to Des Moines to live with his grandfather while attending Highland Park College (later Drake University). His grandfather, a prosperous buyer and seller of land, was the chief financial sponsor of a weekly reform newspaper, the Farmers’ Tribune, considered to be a major organ of the People’s or Populist Party in Iowa. It was in the offices of this small paper that Edwin T. Meredith began his great publishing career.

In the spring of 1894, Meredith became the general manager of his grandfather's paper. In 1896, at age 18, he became the owner and editor of what had become an ailing Farmers' Tribune. That year he was also elected secretary of the State Central Committee of the People's Party.

Meredith gradually transformed the Farmers' Tribune into a statewide farm paper and increased the circulation to about 30,000.

Successful Farming In October 1902, Meredith began publication of a new monthly magazine designed expressly for the farmers of the agriculturally rich Midwest - Successful Farming. By 1908, over 100,000 farm families subscribed to the publication.

Meredith gave force to a publishing concept now called “service journalism.” Meredith was aware of publishing trends, but he never strayed from the success formula that he discovered and was later was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

With the rapid growth of Successful Farming came nationwide recognition for its publisher, progressive Democrat concerned about political reforms affecting the lives of farmers and rural society.

Meredith was immersed in the political structures of Iowa from the mid-1880s through the late 1920s. He made two unsuccessful political bids as a Democratic candidate in Iowa, in 1914 for U.S. Senate and 1916 for governor.

Despite his defeats, Meredith's service on behalf of agriculture and the Democratic Party did not go unnoticed during President Wilson's second term. The president appointed Meredith to the American Labor Mission, which visited England and France in 1918, and the Treasury Department's Advisory Committee on Excess Profits. Meredith received his greatest honor when, in the closing months of his administration, President Wilson named him Secretary of Agriculture (1920-21).

Following his term as Secretary, Meredith once again devoted his energies to publishing. He purchased another farm journal, the Dairy Farmer, which he incorporated into Successful Farming.

In October 1922 the first copies of yet another publication, Fruit, Garden and Home was published in Des Moines. Renamed Better Homes and Gardens in 1924, this magazine soon became, and remains, one of the nation's major publications in terms of circulation and advertising revenue.

Edwin Thomas MeredithEven with the increased demands on his time created by the new publications, Meredith never lost touch with the Iowa and national political and business scenes. Meredith served as the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 1915-19 and once again 1923-28.

Meredith was hospitalized in 1928 at the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore with complications resulting from high blood pressure. In April he entered a period of convalescence at his home in Des Moines, but after several weeks of improvement his condition suddenly worsened and he died June 17, 1928.

Since the Meredith Corporation was founded, it has grown to employ more than 3,300 people throughout the country, with its corporate headquarters still located in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jefferson Highway

The Jefferson Highway was envisioned by Meredith as the “great north and south highway,” and named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, for his role in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

U.S. Senator Lafayette YoungThe first organizational meeting of the national Jefferson Highway Association was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, Nov. 15 and 16, 1915. This city was intentionally selected because of its link to the Louisiana Purchase and President Jefferson.

The meeting was called by Walter Parker, general manager of the New Orleans Association of Commerce, and presided over by former U.S. Senator Lafayette Young of Des Moines (editor and proprietor of The Des Moines Capital, a rival newspaper that later merged with the Des Moines Register). The convention was expected to attract 50 delegates, but six times that number attended.

    Louisiana Purchase
    The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition by the United States of approximately 530 million acres of French territory in 1803. The landLouisiana Purchase purchased contained all of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota south of Mississippi River, much of North Dakota, nearly all of South Dakota, northeastern New Mexico, northern Texas, the portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide, and Louisiana on both sides of the Mississippi River, including the city of New Orleans. In addition, the Purchase contained small portions of land that would eventually become part of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The land included in the purchase comprises approximately 23 percent of the territory of the United States.

    New Orleans was an important port for shipping agricultural goods to and from the parts of the United States. Through Pinckney's Treaty signed with Spain on Oct. 27, 1795, American merchants had "right of deposit" in New Orleans, meaning they could use the port to store goods for export. Americans also used this right to transport products such as flour, tobacco, pork, bacon, lard, feathers, cider, butter, and cheese.

    In 1798 Spain revoked Pinckney’s treaty, which greatly upset Americans. Louisiana remained under Spanish control until a transfer of power to France.

    As long as New Orleans was under French control, Americans feared that they could lose their rights of use to New Orleans. So President Thomas Jefferson decided that the best way to assure the U.S. had long-term access to the Mississippi River would be to purchase the city of New Orleans and nearby portions of Louisiana, located east of the river.

    Jefferson sent negotiators to France to make the purchase of New Orleans on behalf of the United States. The negotiations with Napoleon did not go well. Originally, he expressed no interest in giving up France’s possession of city.

    However, Napoleon soon realized that he lacked sufficient military forces in America to protect the land should the United States or Britain decide to take it by force. At the same time, Napoleon’s regime and his empire-building efforts were suffering on several international fronts.

    Taking these matters into consideration, Napoleon gave notice to his minister of the treasury, Francois de Barbe-Marbois, on April 10, 1803, that he was considering surrendering the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

    To the surprise of the United States, on April 11, 1803, Barbe-Marbois offered U.S. negotiator Robert R. Livingston all of the Louisiana Territory, rather than just the city of New Orleans it was seeking. Certain the United States would not accept such a large land offer, Livingston was prepared to spend $10 million for New Orleans, but was stunned when the entire region was offered for $15 million. The treaty finalizing the purchase was dated April 30, 1803, and signed May 2, 1803.

    France officially turned New Orleans over to the United States Dec. 20, 1803. On March 10, 1804, a formal ceremony was conducted in St. Louis to transfer ownership of the territory from France to the United States.

During this early road-building period, highways or trails were generally organized and marked on a local or statewide basis. Rarely were they interstate or international, making the Jefferson Highway, with its terminal points in two countries and across many states, an anomaly.

At its first national meeting, the Jefferson Highway Association was formally organized and the Jefferson Highway’s terminal points fixed at Winnipeg, Canada, to the north, and New Orleans, Louisiana, to the south.

Monuments mark northern and southern terminus
A granite obelisk at St. Charles and Common streets in New Orleans’ Central Business District marks the southern terminus of the Jefferson Highway. The monument was erected in 1917 by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

A monument that marks the northern terminus of the Pine to Palm Highway was erected Nov. 12, 1974, by the Royal Trust Company commemorating its 75th anniversary and the city of Winnipeg centennial.

It was at the first meeting that E. T. Meredith was named president of the Jefferson Highway Association and the bylaws of the association were laid out. The next order of business was to decide on the highway’s path, which would prove to be an ever-changing and ever-heated battle for the duration of the Jefferson Highway’s existence.

Meredith’s first thought was to have the Jefferson Highway routed directly through the land acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. He later dismissed that notion as simply “sentimental,” not practical or efficient, since the route would have wandered as far west as Texas before returning north.

At the Jefferson Highway Association’s first national meeting, there was overwhelming disagreement about the future path of the highway. Without a doubt, the first north to south trans-continental highway would have brought much prosperity to any towns and states through which it passed. Because of this, many states, cities and organizations attended the meeting to plead their case for the route to come to their area.

After two days of debate over the route, the Jefferson Highway Association settled on the "cardinal point" plan proposed by the board of directors. With this plan, the board was able to decide on the cardinal points or major cities, through which the Jefferson Highway must pass. All other decisions about the exact path of the route were to be made at a later date. The cardinal points were established - Winnipeg, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Des Moines, St. Joseph, Kansas City, Joplin, Muskogee, Denison, Shreveport, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.

Ultimately, debates over the location of the Jefferson Highway would lead to "branch highways" and "scenic loops." These offshoots would spur from the main Jefferson Highway artery and extend to other nearby communities, businesses and states that pleaded for access to highway. On the downside, the branch highways made the Jefferson Highway more confusing for tourists and made matters more difficult for the Jefferson Highway Association. On the upside, however, the branch highways broadened the domain of the Jefferson Highway and appeased the road association supporters in the outlying branch areas.

Iowans were well represented at the Jefferson Highway Association’s organizational meeting. Delegates from the Interstate Trail Association were in attendance. They were there specifically for the purpose of furnishing the backbone for the new Jefferson Highway route with the more than 500 miles that group had already organized and marked between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Kansas City, Missouri.

Early Iowa-based organizers of the Interstate Trail Association later became international presidents of the Jefferson Highway Association, including W. A. Hopkins of Lamoni and Hugh H. Shepard of Mason City.

Following its organizational meeting, the delegates where charged with going back to their respective states to undertake the tasks of helping insure that the highway was constructed, marked and advertised.

Thomas H. MacDonaldThe first meeting of the Iowa branch of Jefferson Highway Association was held at the Des Moines courthouse Jan. 5, 1915. It was attended by former Senator Young, T.R. Agg and Thomas H. MacDonald. It was reportedly a cold, stormy night and there were 115 people in attendance, including the Good Roads boosters.

One of the attendees, Hugh H. Shepard of Mason City, who later became the international vice president of the association, reported he was “quite discouraged over the apparent failure of the meeting.” Senator Young told him to cheer up, because “sometimes the very meritorious projects grow from small beginnings.” Young stated that he had been fighting for good roads for 20 years and that he hoped to live long enough to see the State of Iowa covered with a network of roads that could be traveled year round.

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