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Promoters of the Jefferson Highway included Len Rice, left, top row, a pioneer resident known as "Father of Good Roads." He suggested the highway should go by Itasca State Park, which, led to the decision to send the road through Park Rapids, as opposed to Detroit Lakes.

Jefferson Highway Association re-forms

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Park Rapids Enterprise
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Jefferson Highway Association re-forms
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

"Park Rapids is now on the Jefferson Highway," Enterprise headlines declared July 17, 1916 of a corridor of commerce and adventure - what is now state Highway 71.


And the first Jefferson Highway Sociability Run on the highway stretching from New Orleans to Winnipeg, Manitoba was the talk of the town.

The highway, inspired by the east-west Lincoln Highway, was designated in 1915. The 2,300-mile roadway "on the backbone of America" was nicknamed Palm to Pine, denoting the trees found at each end.

The roads and trails meandered through the Louisiana Purchase land area. The highway's namesake, Thomas Jefferson, was primarily responsible for the U.S. acquisition of the French territory.

"The first Jefferson Highway Sociability Run came into Park Rapids from St. Joseph, Mo.," the Enterprise reported. "The Run stayed on schedule within five minutes at every town on the route.

"As it entered Park Rapids, 150 local cars joined in the procession," many Tin Lizzies arriving from neighboring towns. An arch had been erected, decorated with pine boughs, declaring Park Rapids to be "Gateway to Itasca State Park."

Each roadster carried a pennant: "Park Rapids - We like it, you'll like it."

Local historian Frank Mitchell hopes to reprise that piece of history, recently attending an inaugural meeting of the re-formed Jefferson Highway Association in Lee's Summit, Mo.

There he discovered three attending from Menahga, the city also on the historic route.

Jensine Kurtti, who arrived with Sandy Kilbo and Sharon Tate, met the organizer of the Jefferson Highway Association, Mike Conlin, in 2009.

Conlin, a mapmaker, and a friend were tracing the route from Winnipeg down to New Orleans via a motor home. Kurtti gave them a tour of Menahga's history museum, leading to the invitation to attend the recent confab.

Kurtti, who is now Minnesota's representative on the association's board of directors, said plans are in the works to create a Web page, gain 501(c)3 status and seek designation of the route as an historic highway.

And in 2015, the association hopes to host a centennial celebration of the highway's designation, the first transcontinental international highway.

Three routes through Minnesota had initially been considered, Mitchell said, including an ox cart trail in the western part of the state, an eastern course and the chosen central itinerary.

J.D Clarkson, general manager of the Jefferson Highway in 1916, made the determination. But the designation came with stipulations to the communities on the route.

A committee of seven men was to be organized and $9 per mile was to be assessed. And the road had to be designed for use 365 days of the year, no mean fete in Minnesota.

Communities failing to meet the obligation would forfeit the designation and an alternate route would be chosen.

Highway 71 underwent four name changes in its initial phases, he said, from Road to Itasca to Highway 4 to Jefferson Highway to the current Highway 71 designation.

The roadway may soon regain national fame, with a celebration in the works.

The next planning meeting will be held April 27-29 in Ames, Iowa.

For more information on the initiative, Google "Jefferson Highway."

Jean Ruzicka
(218) 732-3364