Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Blue Grass Road (Part 1)

The stretch of Blue Grass Road between Chariton and Russell currently is marked by four "Historic Blue Grass Road" signs erected by Bob Sims and his family during 2011. The first is in Max Willadson's front yard just south of town; the fourth, near First Baptist Church in Russell.

I try hard not to spread misinformation --- honest. But the other day, Bill Thompson asked me uptown about the origins of the name "Blue Grass Road" and my mouth moved faster than my mind. "Oh, it was a road across Iowa that led to Blue Grass, Iowa, just east of Davenport," I said, or something like that.

Well, that's not truel. Purge any connection between Blue Grass, Iowa, and the Blue Grass Road from your memory. There is no connection. None. Whatsoever. It was a mental glitch. Here's the real story.


The Blue Grass Road, developed between 1910 and 1912, was a river-to-river route of approximately 300 miles from Council Bluffs to Burlington assembled from existing roads to connect all county seats in the range of counties across southern Iowa that includes Lucas and its seat, Chariton.

When Heubinger's official map and guide for the Blue Grass Road was published in 1912, the route was described as "A Model Dirt Road Through the Famous Blue Grass Belt of Iowa." Most Iowa roads were dirt in 1912.

The name "Blue Grass" had been selected by Charles L. Thomas (left), then in the hardware, lumber and banking businesses in the little Union County town of Kent. He was a prime mover in originating plans for the route and was known in his time as the father of the Blue Grass Road. Thomas went on to serve in the Iowa Senate from 1913 until 1917 and closed out his public career as a member of the state board of education before dying in Creston on April 10, 1927.

"Famous Blue Grass Belt" is a little misleading. First of all, Kentucky blue grass, now familiar throughout Iowa, is not native to the state --- there are native varieties of blue grass, but they were rare, especially in the south of Iowa. Kentucky blue grass was introduced by EuroAmerican settlers as they broke the prairie. As native grasses receded, blue grass flourished, especially in southern Iowa where grazing was a dominant form of agriculture.

The peculiar notion had developed prior to 1900 that blue grass would not flourish farther north, a theory experience disproved. But in 1910, southern Iowa, although not especially Lucas County, was known for its blue grass and some --- including Charles L. Thomas --- considered the southern two tiers of counties the heart of a "famous" belt. Hence, the name.


To understand why the Blue Grass Road was developed, it's useful to understand that roads --- most of them dirt --- were largely unimproved and primarily for local traffic between the later 1860s, when construction of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad was completed across Iowa, and 1900. Farmers used them to travel by horse and wagon to and from town; city folks might travel by horse and buggy or on horseback into the country or to the next county seat --- but that was about as far as it went. 

In Chariton, after 1870, it was possible to depart in (or arrive from) four directions by rail --- east, west, southwest and northwest. Most Lucas Countyans traveleling any distance did so by train.

That all changed with the introduction of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines, and by 1910, automobile owners and others were putting the pressure on, demanding better roads. Merchants and leaders of towns of all sizes added their voices, recognizing the economic potential of an improved road system.

The Blue Grass Road was developed in response, but (and it was a big "but") there were no federal or state funds to assist in the project. It would have to be a project completed entirely by a series of local initiatives undertaken by residents of cities and counties along the general route --- the C.B.&Q. rail line. They would choose the best existing roads to link, find the volunteers and/or cash needed to improve them and then ensure maintenance once the road was launched. A town that participated actively in the project ensured that traffic would pass through its town square or down its main street.

The job of organizing the Blue Grass project went to Joe L. Long (left), a Lucas County native then editor and co-publisher (with Howard Darlington Copeland of Chariton, who financed the project) of The Osceola Sentinel. Long was born during 1881 in Pleasant Township to Winfield Scott "Fid" and Gwennie May (Jenkins) Long. He got his start in the newspaper business during 1901, age 20, when he bought the Russell Union from Henry W. Gittinger, then moved on and up to Osceola with Copeland's backing.

Long, who also managed the successful gubernatorial candidacy of B.F. Carroll in 1908, was a remarkably effective organizer who went on during the mid-1930s to become executive secretary of the Iowa Taxpayers Association, a position he held until two years before his 1956 death in Des Moines at age 74.

Joe began by writing to the mayors of towns along the proposed route, then contacted the editors of some 60-70 newspapers. Mayors were asked to appoint local Blue Grass Road committees. If they failed to do so, community and commercial clubs or newspaper editors along the route were invited to fill the void and do the local organizing.

Once this phase was complete and a sufficient number of local committees were in place, Long called big meeting in Osceola on Oct. 21, 1910, to formally launch the project.

To be continued

No comments: