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Driving the Jefferson Highway

Darrell Johnston and Josiah Laubenstein of Highway Walkers Media rolled into Park Rapids in a 1954 Dodge Royal while filming their documentary along the Jefferson Highway. (Nicole Vik/Enterprise)

Josiah Laubenstein and Darrell Johnston of Highway Walkers Media made a   stop-over in Park Rapids Mondaynight as part of their journey south.

     The two filmmakers started their trip from Winnipeg, Manitoba on May 7 and will take the next 30 days to travel the historic Jefferson Highway to New Orleans, Louisiana while filming a documentary chronicling their experiences.

     Laubenstein and Johnston attended the Park Rapids City Council meeting Tuesday where a proclamation officially making May 10 Drive the Jefferson Highway Day in Park Rapids was approved by the council and signed by Park Rapids Mayor Pat Mikesh.

     The two young characters, who are self-proclaimed “harmless idiots,” cruised into town in a maroon 1954 Dodge Royal, which was owned by Johnston’s great-grandmother and passed down to his uncle.

     They compare driving the borrowed automobile to “going home from the hospital with your first baby,” terrifying and exhilarating all at once.

     Along with the cameras that never leave their sides they brought vibrant enthusiasm and a willingness to discuss their latest project.

     Having spent the weekend as interviewers, they were pleased to let the tables turn over a meal of burgers and fries as they became the interviewees.

     They introduce themselves as “two bumbling friends” on a mission to “challenge, implore and empower” their audience through their films.

     This will be their third collaboration; the idea for this particular documentary began formulating when the Rotary Club in Johnston’s hometown of Leon, Iowa started campaigning to put up markers in Iowa along the Jefferson Highway.

     “It started as a way to get that legislation to pass,” Johnston explained about getting the Iowa Department of Transportation to mark it as a heritage byway. “And then it passed really quickly and so now it’s a way to encourage the other states.”

     The Jefferson Highway was originally the idea of Edwin T. Meredith, he thought that it would be economically beneficial to the communities it ran through.

     Meredith was also the founder of Meredith Corporation, a magazine publisher that started a magazine that would become known as Better Homes & Gardens.

     Meredith Corporation has since expanded into a publicly held media conglomerate and is now responsible for funding Highway Walkers Media to film a documentary highlighting the Jefferson Highway.

     The Jefferson Highway, which was established in 1916 as the first transnational road in America and named for President Thomas Jefferson, celebrates its centennial this year.

     According to Connie Cox, lead interpretive naturalist at Itasca State Park, life revolved around the roads and cars 100 years ago. The Jefferson Highway coming into town was quite impressive.

      Tuesday morning, Cox gave Laubenstein and Johnston a tour highlighting original sections of the highway that used to cut through the park, including a portion which is now a bicycle trail one foot away from the Mississippi River.

     Back in 1915 to 1916, there was a lot of contention about the route of the highway.

     It started with three proposed routes; one going to Duluth, one coming up what is now U.S. Highway 71 and one going on the west side of the state toward Moorhead.

     On July 27, 1916 the central route officially won the name Jefferson Highway.

     “Depending on which end of the highway you were at, if you were in New Orleans it was commonly referred to as the “Palm to Pine” Highway, or if you’re in Winnipeg it is “Pine to Palm,” Ren Holland, a local member of the Jefferson Highway Association explained.

     According to Holland, due to the area’s natural pines, that was one of the factors to cause the route to come through Itasca State Park and Park Rapids rather than further west in Minnesota.

     Life really changed for people at that time, they would organize sociability runs, which were gatherings of drivers organized to drive the highway together. The cars would be marked with small American flags to distinguish who was a part of the run.

     “April 19, 1917 edition of the Park Rapids Enterprise writes, ‘Jefferson Highway sociability run in May, 10,000 cars to participate in 3,000-mile auto trip from Winnipeg to New Orleans and return; Park Rapids will celebrate,’” Cox read from an old newspaper clipping of the Enterprise. “It was called the Jefferson Highway Double Relay Sociability Run.”

     “That’s the goal for this to get people to take a day trip,” Johnston said. “And drive from one town to another on a road that they wouldn’t normally drive on.”

     Laubenstein and Johnston hope that by making this film from their perspective they may inspire a younger generation to “youthanize” the Jefferson Highway.

     As the duo makes their way south they are seeking proclamations from mayors declaring Drive the Jefferson Highway Day in various locations to bring awareness to the historic byway in the communities it passes through.

     The filmmakers got their proclamation in Park Rapids on Tuesday. 

     Johnston’s family has owned a cabin on Long Lake since the 1920s; he himself has been vacationing here since childhood and is very familiar with small town charm.

     “The end game is to promote this highway that passes through all these small towns and to give these communities something to be proud of,” Johnston said.

     “Most of the towns along the Jefferson highway are small and because the major highways bypass a lot of these cities; you miss a lot,” Laubenstein commented. “Every community has something interesting and unique.”

     “What we do is legitimate and we’re good at it and we’re serving a good purpose for these communities we pass through,” Johnston explains before he takes a breath and continues. “And also to have a great adventure, we’re not totally selfless in the whole thing.”

     A portion of the film will be shown to the National Governor’s Association at the National Governor’s Conference to be held in Iowa this coming July.

     By the end of the summer they hope to start doing screenings and try to enter the film into film festivals.

     The Highway Walkers will be posting updates on their travels on their Facebook page as well as Twitter and their website: www.high waywalkers.com

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