28 Mar Miss Alma Makes a Bee Line: A Story of One Woman and Two Auto Trails
January 11, 1917 — After five hours of arguing, following eight years of unrelenting work, Alma Rittenberry finally gave up on her Jackson Highway. Turning her back on the men who had pushed her aside, Rittenberry marched out of the Tutwiler Hotel into the Birmingham, Alabama night.
As the first female transcontinental highway booster, Alma Rittenberry had promoted her Jackson Highway not only as a memorial to the former President nicknamed “Old Hickory,” but as a progressive path to get farmers out of the mud and a source of “financial and cultural gain” for the North and South.1
Sidelined over and over again by the men who hijacked her road, Rittenberry exited the Jackson Highway Association meeting and turned her gaze toward a new road— the North and South National Bee Line Highway.
A Grand Road
Things were not so desperate in 1909 when Rittenberry— or “Miss Alma” as she was more often called—came up with an idea to build a modern north-south public road to commemorate Andrew Jackson, a man whose involvement in the Seminole Wars “won white supremacy for all time for America, and opened up to civilization the widest and longest stretch of territory in the world.”2
Born in 1858 in tiny Campbellsville, Tennessee, Miss Alma grew up, as she recalled, “on the side of a wide place in a big road in an old gray farm house with its brown roof stained by time.”3 She was “raised on roads,” travelling widely along the old traces and turnpikes of the South.4
Her grandfather, Hamilton Crockett Campbell, with kinship to Davey Crockett and Alexander Hamilton, had served under Colonel Andrew Jackson, as one of the Tennessee volunteers in the War of 1812. This connection, and the fact that she found old roads “an inexhaustible supply of romance and legend,”5 moved Miss Alma to pay tribute to Old Hickory in the form of a named highway.
The Jackson Memorial Highway became the first project of the newly formed Birmingham chapter of the National Society of United States Daughters of 1812, an organization started in 1892 to promote patriotism and custodianship of American history—and to protect the culture of the New South.
The Daughters, like many late 19th-century women’s patriot and heredity societies (including the United Daughters of Confederacy, of which Miss Alma was a member), fomented, as historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage writes, “a movement to craft a white public memory [that] especially engrossed elite white women, who donned the mantle of ‘guardians of the past.’”6 Their legacy includes “a landscape thick with monuments and infrastructure.” Consider all those stoic Confederate monuments posed on every courthouse square across the South.7
Miss Alma complained that patriotic organizations spent millions “erecting buildings to house relics and the like, boulders and monuments” but built nothing practical.8 By contrast, the Jackson Highway would be “the most useful memorial ever erected by a patriotic organization.”9 And if built correctly, she predicted, it would outlast the Roman Coliseum.
Rittenberry pitted her road against the first publicly campaigned memorial highway—the original 1910 “Lincoln Highway,” a failed road between Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg meant to commemorate the slain president. She thought the Lincoln Highway was wrong for the South. Alabama and her sister states should, instead dedicate a road to a Confederate hero or a famous son. She grumbled in the press that no highway had been dedicated to Andrew Jackson, “a man whose name is identified with more roads and trails than any other American in history.”10 She failed to disclose that Jackson, as president, vetoed a bill to provide funding to the country’s first public highway, the National Road.
For her tribute to Old Hickory, Rittenberry suggested a logical route from Chicago to Mobile, connecting the Great Lakes to Gulf Coast, and then onto New Orleans following Jackson’s path “wherever practicable.”11 Not shy of hyperbole, she envisioned “a grand road [that] goes through the grandest country on the face of the globe.”12
With the germ of her idea, the Jackson Highway Association organized at the National Good Roads Convention held in Birmingham in May 1911. Prominent Southern men—lawyers, publishers, and politicians— assumed the important positions in the organization. Miss Alma emerged as chair, not of the Jackson Highway Association but of an auxiliary Jackson Highway Committee of the Alabama Daughters of 1812.
Despite her segregated role, Rittenberry leveraged her femininity for the road. Referencing Jackson’s courteous treatment of women, she asked, “Is there a man so lacking in chivalry, so wanting in patriotism, that will deny one inch of the ‘right of way’ asked for the route of the Jackson Highway by the Alabama Daughters of 1812?”13
Unlike female colleagues working on roadside beautification campaigns, Miss Alma, unmarried, put her own money—and legwork—to the cause. While the men ran the association from their smoke-filled club rooms, she took to the road, educating the public on the Jackson Highway’s merits. She called it “working the road,” and it often meant, as no federal money was available at the time, cajoling counties to fund its construction.
On the road in 1912, Miss Alma gave a speech on the Jackson Highway to the national Auto Sales Convention in Indianapolis, where she was included on the roster with such celebrity speakers as Elbert Hubbard, the Deepak Chopra of the era. At another gathering in Pine Hill, Alabama, she delivered her “J. H.” stump speech to a reported crowd of 3,000. In spite of all the miles and words delivered, Miss Alma found most of her efforts unrecognized.
Her unrewarded work started to take its toll. In her annual report to the Jackson Highway Association, she lamented, writing in third person, that the second year’s work had “been carried on with the expenditure of much more time and personal expense on the part of the chairman.”14 Invited to attend the Illinois Women’s Good Roads Association, she complained that “an empty treasury prevented her from going.”15
Doggedly, she hit the trail again in 1913 to drum up support for the highway. To cover her expenses, Rittenberry sold copies of Southern Good Roads magazine. She paid for a second trip by hawking postcards of Andrew Jackson and the Hermitage. But after several thousand miles, and weeks of knocking on doors, she returned dejected.
Expressing her frustration again, she wrote in Southern Good Roads: “In all patriotic work of this kind, with no financial backing, it is a long drawn out persistent work, you always meet with more or less indifference and more or less opposition. As chairman I have tried … to interest the various commercial bodies in the different cities through which the Jackson Highway passes. They all endorsed the proposition and assured me of their hearty support and cooperation. But, oh,” she lamented, “they seem so long in giving it.”16
John Murphey is an architectural historian working in city planning. Kris Murphey is a communications manager at a non-profit organization. Someday they hope to own a Muffler Man.
There’s more! To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in. Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in theSCA Journal, Spring 2013, Vol. 31, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.
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