Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 1993 / Winter 1994

John T. Woodruff and Missouri Road Building

from John T. Woodruff's unpublished memoirs

John Thomas Woodruff, (1868-1949), attorney, businessman, promoter extraordinaire was a Godfather of Ozarks highways.

Woodruff grew up in a log house on a homesteaded farm in Crawford County, Missouri. He was Prosecuting Attorney of Crawford County, practiced law in St. Louis, and was an attorney for the Frisco Railroad in Springfield, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Woodruff was largely responsible for the development of the Frisco shops, O'Reilly Hospital, the U.S. Federal Medical Center and the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in Springfield. He was instrumental in securing the site for Springfield Normal, now SMSU. He built the Sansone, Colonial, and Kentwood Arms hotels, and Hickory Hills golf course, all in Springfield. He built Pinebrook Resort in the Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and a resort in Howell County, Missouri, which he named Siloam Springs.He also influenced the developments of Powersite, Norfork, and Bagnell Dams.

Getting a railroad to one's town was the chief aim of many an Ozarks civic booster in the last third of the nineteenth century. Getting a paved high-way---or better yet, the crossing of two--was the chief objective of the next generation of boosters in the first third of the twentieth century. John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri was one of the latter. A tireless promoter of Springfield and the Ozarks, Woodruff deserves credit for much of that city's growth and economic development in the first half of this century. The following excerpt from his memoirs provides in-fight into the politics of the time. It is also part of the history of the Ozarks' road network--indeed that of Missouri and the whole nation. It reveals the conception of the crucial and justly famous U.S. Route 66 through Springfield and the Missouri Ozarks.

Woodruff's Arms Hotel (1925) was the first hotel sited and built in Springfield to serve a motoring clientele rather than one of rail travelers. It was out east of the square on St. Louis Street, the old St. Louis road which became the route of U.S. 66.

The numbering of highways by state and federal agencies did not occur until the 1920's, as part of the creation of a system of connected, improved roads. Before that, urban promoters often associated themselves with others of like intention in neighboring, or even distant, cities to establish linking routes that could be described, mapped (and perhaps improved) in order to attract the new motoring public to their locales.

In the Ozarks, such boosters included resort and recreation promoters. One of them was the famous and eccentric Colonel William "Coin" Harvey. Harvey's Ozarks Trails Association sought to establish and promote a network of Ozarks roads. Woodruff, who apparently considered himself a rival of Harvey, had similar intentions in the interests of Springfield. The jockeying for position in the politics of their highway association foundings is entertainingly narrated in Woodruff's memoir.

When the State of Missouri in 1920 and again in 1929 passed large bond issues to improve and pave intrastate road networks, Woodruff and his Springfield associates argued their city's case successfully. The same was true when in 1925 the U.S. government began planning a system of federal highways. Woodruff's participation in and description of those events provides a first hand look at the beginnings of our road networks.

Woodruff proudly claimed that, because of the intersection of U.S. 65 (Minnesota to New Orleans) and U.S. 66, Springfield had become "the crossroads of America." -RBF


The text published below is drawn from "Reminiscences of an Ozarkian," an unpublished manuscript kindly provided by J. T. Woodruff, a grandson, to Dr. Steve Illum, Director of the SMSU Center for Tourism, who is researching Woodruff's career. The original, dated April, 1941, was apparently handwritten, then typed in the office ora close friend, the late Judge Jack A. Powell. Catherine Woodruff, daughter-in-law of John T. Woodruff, generously offered permission for use of the memoir.

The fever to build common things is intermittent. It comes by fits and spurts. Not so as to roads. Once you come down with it, the fever and fervor continue. Travel on horseback, by wagon, buckboard, buggy, or stagecoach required roads of course, and there were then roads of a kind. But the advent of the motor car propelled by the internal combustion engine called for more roads, good all-weather roads.

The feverish anxiety to gain these took root in the Ozarks as early as anywhere else. The result was the enactment by the Missouri Legislature of laws authorizing the creation of the Special Road District in the country and the "Eight Mile" District in and around the city of Springfield, Missouri. We were not remiss in employing the plans thus provided, in any respect.

I recall with interest a specific instance typical of many others. A group of farmers southeast of Springfield initiated a plan for building a road from the city limits to the Cow Ford bridge over the James River, the distance six miles. There was disagreement among them as to which of two roads should be used for entrance into the city. The controversy was brought to my office. I suggested that it would be helpful if they had two entrances to the city. After discussing it at length, that plan was adopted. This resulted in eight miles of road instead of six.

I prepared a petition to the County Court for the incorporation of the Southeastern Special Road District. The order was made and a bond issue of eight thousand dollars authorized. I was urged to accept the chairmanship of the commission, and did so. Within a few months we built the roads called for, to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned.

The Southeast Springfield plan was followed by the organization of some thirty-six other districts. These brought about substantial and much needed roads in the community. Later we organized the Springfield Special Road District which encompassed some eight miles square surrounding the city. Many of us performed a faithful service in that activity. Louis Luster, afterwards attorney for the district on public occasions, referred to me as "The Father of the Eight Mile Road District." Nor were these all the things accomplished.

About 1915, as chairman of the Greater Springfield Committee, I initiated a movement for the organization of the Inter-Ozarks Highway Association. The plan contemplated the promotion of highway development throughout the region. I called a meeting at. the Springfield Club to be composed of delegates from all over the Ozarks. We had a rousing meeting. The attendance was very representative. I was elected president of the organization. Interest in the subject of good roads was engendered, and much effective work was done far and near. The newspapers of that time will disclose the names of more than a hundred men throughout the region who busied themselves in this forward movement. We became "road conscious," a condition that must be obtained as a requisite to achievement in any public enterprise.

Then came "Coin" Harvey with his Ozarks Trails Association, a movement ill planned and poorly executed, but of considerable usefulness nevertheless. I have rarely known a man whose vanity surpassed that of the Colonel, or one whose ideas were less practical, but his name and fame as the author of "Coin's Financial School" lent color to the movement, and his shortcomings were lost sight of.

Colonel Harvey staged a great convention at Independence, Kansas and invited delegates from near and far. One of the issues to be determined at that convention was the matter of selecting a city in which the next annual convention should be held. There were many bidders, but finally, it narrowed down to a contest between Joplin and Springfield. About twenty delegates went from Springfield to Independence in a special Pullman car. A larger number went from Joplin on the train or in automobiles. I happened to be chairman of the Springfield delegation, and John Malang, whose effective work in the cause of good roads later developed to a superb degree, was chairman of the Joplin delegation. Both delegations employed every means available to name their respective towns. The Kansas towns represented were quite numerous, and naturally they were friendly to the capitol of the Tri-State Mining District.

We, of Springfield, however, devised a plan to alienate some of the larger towns like Independence and Oswego, and before the opposition knew what we were about enlisted these towns in the cause of Springfield. After much objecting and even much wire-pulling, a vote was taken and we secured the prize. The Colonel professed to be neutral in the choice of a site but was at heart for Joplin.

The Ozarks Trails convention was staged at Springfield as an outstanding event. Delegates were invited from the four Ozarks states [Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma]. The old Convention Hall was secured as a place of meeting. It was gaily decorated, and a half-dozen bands were in attendance.

The Colonel visited Springfield a month in advance of the meeting and in a private conference with me agreed that the next annual meeting should be designated by the convention, and that he favored Jonesboro, Arkansas. I had become well-acquainted in Jonesboro during my activities in the St. Francis Valley development, and knew most of the prominent men in that town. On a visit there between the time the Colonel visited Springfield and the date of the Convention, I addressed their Commercial Club and urged upon them the importance of having a good representation from their town, and they in turn importuned many towns in their region to send delegates. Delegates were here from all the territory east and more from the territory west of Springfield.


Before the date of the meeting arrived, I learned that the Colonel had persuaded Oklahoma City to make a bid for the convention and had aroused a lot of interest in the Oklahoma towns as well as in the towns of Missouri west of us, and another fight was on between the two contending cities for the next year's convention.

On the day before the convention met, the Colonel visited me and stated that he was always anxious for rivalry as to the town where the annual meeting should be held, and that he preferred Oklahoma City over Jonesboro. He even asked me to be gracious enough to support Oklahoma City over Jonesboro, not openly, but in a way that might insure support enough to select Oklahoma City. I told him frankly I could not lend myself to any such plan and proposed fighting it out in favor of Jonesboro. He became much displeased and set about among my friends to win me over to this view. The Colonel was adroit enough to enlist a great many Springfieldians in his cause, and they were men interested in the territory west of us more than in the territory surrounding Jonesboro, so they supported him. The issue became the paramount question in the convention.

The Colonel presided at the convention throughout the deliberation, fearful to yield the chair to anybody, but before the vote was taken he realized that to win at all he must throw all the influence he possessed to Oklahoma City. He vacated the chair and asked Cyrus S. Avery of Tulsa, who was in attendance at the convention, to preside. He then came out in the open, addressed the convention and espoused the cause of Oklahoma City, naming his reasons.

I had not occupied the floor up until that time, but after his fervent appeal I did take the floor in behalf of Jonesboro. In the meantime many of my friends, including E.L. Sanford, Jesse A. Tolerton, Sam Trimble and others had been working diligently for our side. When the vote was taken, we won by a small majority. The Colonel became indignant and tried to inaugurate a move to reconsider the vote, but he could find no one who had supported Jonesboro to make a motion to reconsider the matter. He had to take his medicine but did it very reluctantly. I learned afterwards that he had made pledges to Oklahoma City to secure for them the convention and was driven to the expedient of calling an interim convention at the end of six months.

Both conventions were held, but the one at Jonesboro was the larger, and probably the most effective. At the latter meeting, however, the Colonel did not appear. Be it said to his credit, that he did arouse much interest in the cause of good roads.

Preceding this convention, Colonel Harvey, E.L. Sanford, Jesse A. Tolerton, L.S. Meyer and I scouted routes from Springfield to St. Louis, going by way of Mountain Grove, Cabool, Houston, and Rolla, and on the return via Rolla, Dixon, Richland, Lebanon, and Marshfield, In those days the roads were little more than trails, the automobile not very dependable, and we had much trouble, but succeeded in making the trip though attended with much anxiety and some risk.

In 1920, during Governor Frederick Gardner's administration, there was statewide agitation for a big, broad comprehensive plan to "Lift Missouri out of the Mud." The Governor appointed a state highway commission under the Morgan-McCullough Law. E.L. Sanford, Springfield banker, was chairman of that commission. This Commission designated many of the highways, in fact, the basis of the present state system. But there were mea ger funds to support it, and only engineering and other preliminary work could be done effectively.

The next year came the passage of a Centennial Road Law, providing for the issuance of sixty million dollars in bonds to be secured by the imposition of a gasoline tax and automobile license fees. However, this proposal was in the form of a Constitutional Amendment and had to be ratified by vote at an election. The matter came up for vote.

We, in the Ozarks, were among the leaders in the movement. We threw every one of our organizations, including the Inter-Ozarks Highway Association, of which I was then president, into the campaign. The Constitutional Amendment was adopted by a decisive vote.

That resulted in the appointment, by Governor Arthur M. Hyde, of a state highway commission composed of Theodore Gary, C.D. Mathews, S.S. Connett, Murray Carleton, and H.A. Buehler, ex-officio. These were very able men who organized promptly, held meetings throughout the state and designated fifteen hundred miles of primary roads, the same mileage of secondary roads, and several thousand miles of state highways.


When the commission came to Springfield with a view of designating our portion of this mileage, a very interesting meeting was held. On the layout as designated by the corn-mission, Spring-field had but one primary road--the then Highway 16, now U.S. 66, running from St. Louis in a southwesterly direction through Springfield and Joplin to the Kansas state line.

We were not satisfied with this set up and tried to prevail upon the commission to include Highway 5, now U.S. 65, running north and south through Springfield.

The commission remained here two days and then went to Joplin. We followed in the hope that finally they might also designate Highway 5. They claimed the mileage would not permit it, but the commission did designate it, and in doing so, they were obliged to exceed the limit of mileage to a slight extent. Thus state highway 5 became U.S. Highway 65, now one of the great north and south roads of the country. So it was through these efforts that we secured the second primary highway.

In 1929, after great headway had been made by the commission, another bond issue was proposed, this time in the sum of seventy-five million dollars to build other roads in Missouri.

The Inter-Ozarks Highway Association prepared to promote passage of the bond and constitutional amendment the bond entailed. I had been active in behalf of the earlier projects and on the latter was chosen to represent the Sixth Congressional District in the approaching campaign to secure voter approval of the second amendment. There were fifteen members.

We selected Lloyd C. Stark--later Governor of Missouri--of Louisiana, Missouri, as chairman, conducted a vigorous campaign, and carried the amendment by a decisive vote. Under the latter plan, the highways in Springfield were supplemented by numerous other roads--U.S. Highway 60, U.S. Highway 160, and State Highways 13 and 123. Today there are federal, state, and farm-to-market roads radiating in all directions [from Springfield]. Indeed, Springfield is the hub of a great network of roads, the layout being the envy of many communities, some larger than Springfield.

Previously, in 1925, the Federal Bureau of Roads was authorized to make a comprehensive layout of Government highways throughout the United States. The chief of the Bureau,T.H. McDonald, invited to Washington for a prolonged conference the chairmen of state highway commissions and each state's chief engineer for a pro-longed conference, the idea being that by this method of cooperation, a better plan could be devised for the whole country. It worked exceptionally well.

Missouri was particularly fortunate in that George Sheets, formerly highway engineer of Missouri, was then the chief engineer of the Illinois Highway Department and knew conditions in Missouri quite well, and in the fact that Cyrus S. Avery, chairman of the Oklahoma Highway Commission, and a former Missourian, had done a great deal of work on highway problems in both Missouri and Oklahoma.

So in the Washington conference, when the designation of highways by number came up for consideration, old Highway 16 through Missouri was numbered U.S. Highway 66 and laid out starting at Chicago, coming through St. Louis, Springfield, Joplin, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Texas; Tucumcari, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona; and on to Los Angeles. Old Highway 5 was designated as U.S. Highway 65 running from Minneapolis through Springfield to New Orleans. This, we claimed, made Springfield the cross roads of America.

In July, 1926, Mr. Avery came to Springfield as my guest at the opening of the Kentwood Arms Hotel. Mrs. Avery came also. Mr. Avery and I looked over some of the highway construction surrounding Springfield, and he was particularly impressed with the importance of Highway 66. I suggested that we should organize a 66 Highway Association to promote the early completion and permanent maintenance of this great highway, but we did not perfect plans at that time.

Later that year we held a conference in Springfield at which Mr. Avery, Mr. Hill, the state highway engineer of Oklahoma, and a number of Springfield men attended. At this meeting, it was agreed that the Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce should unite in sending invitations to Chambers of Commerce in all of the cities on the highway, including Chicago and Los Angeles to hold a conference at Tulsa at a later date.


This meeting was held, and everyone was surprised at the generous response to the invitation. At that meeting we passed resolutions and took the necessary steps to incorporate U.S. Highway 66 Association. I was elected president; George Spiva of Joplin, vice president from Missouri; Charles Wells of Baxter Springs [Kansas?], vice president from Oklahoma; J.W. Thorp of Amarillo, vice president from Texas; Edgar Knight of Albuquerque, vice president for New Mexico; and Anson Smith of Flagstaff, vice president for Arizona. Later Governor James Gill was elected vice president from California.

We went to work diligently, and for the next few years carried on an aggressive campaign to speed up construction, popularize the highway, and promote travel activity of many kinds.

U.S. Highway 66 is today the most important and certainly serves a heavier out of state traffic than any other east and west highway west of the Mississippi Riven Indeed, just recently the Highway Department at Washington made an order favoring Highway 66 above all others in Missouri for improvement as a military route.

I make no claim that the Highway 66 Association is responsible for the popularity of that highway, but I do contend that the efforts of the Association advanced its completion several years.

Highway 66 was completed through the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona, and into California to Los Angeles before it was finished through Oklahoma. Rain and floods may come and go, mud abound, but none of them now retard travel on route 66.

I have assisted in many other highway projects, but none thus far as interesting as U.S. Highway 66, "The main street of America." However, we have done much of the preliminary work on a Pan American Highway promotion, and we in Springfield expect to launch a movement early in the spring of 1941, to promote travel between the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.


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