(Editor’s Note: Some months back, Thomas Olejnicak reached out to us and said he was working on a story about the Jefferson Highway. Since it went through Story County, and in fact, is one of the highways that make the Reed-Niland Corner in Colo so historic, we told him we’d love to share it for our readers who enjoy history.)

If you have never heard of, or read any of the articles about the Jefferson Highway, you have missed a very important part of the roadway history of our country. As with any start to something great, it probably began with, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea.” The Jefferson Highway was no different. As you get to know this huge endeavor, you will begin to understand the people who initially made this country great. You can start with the Internet or your local library and begin your journey from Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada, to New Orleans, La.

When you read some of the accounts of the Jefferson Highway project, you can’t help but admire the people who were involved. All of the meetings and arguments about where it was going to go, through whose farm or property, and not to mention who was going to pay for it. Associations were formed and clearer minds ultimately prevailed in the end, so the right decisions were made. It turned out to be a large portion of the little people who made this a success. Oh sure, there were the mayors and council people who were also involved and probably added to the hype and promotion, but the average Joe was the worker who was getting the job done.

My name is Thomas Francis Olejnicak (Ola-knee-check). My name is really not that important to this story, but I wanted you to know who I am. Later you will see where I fit in. I am 77 years old, but grew up knowing the Jefferson Highway in mid-central and northern Minnesota through my parents, Mable and Frank. Around 1955 they bought a piece of property on Lake Shamineau in the North Country off Highway 10 near Motley, Minn. We would drive up every weekend to see if the property was ready to build on. Our many trips to the lake cabin took us through many towns and communities that were originally marked as the old Jefferson Highway. (Highway 169 {or old County road 18} and Highway 10). From where we lived in South Minneapolis, we would pass through Robinsdale, Osseo, Elk River, Big Lake, Clear Lake, St. Cloud, Rice, Royalton, Little Falls, Randall, Cushing, Lincoln, Motley and then to the cabin. There were many weekends traveling to the lake and many trips continued after I got married and my wife and I had children.

Now it wasn’t the original dusty, dirty Jefferson Highway and it was marked with different highway signs, but the Northern route that it took was still the same. The Jefferson Highway then continued south from Minneapolis through Rosemount, Farmington, Northfield, Dundas, Faribault, Medford and Owatonna. It kept going and went further south all the way to New Orleans, La., but, this story starts way back in 1925 in Owatonna, Minn.

Some years after my daughter started a search into family ancestry, my interest in the Jefferson Highway grew. Our family has had a photo of my grandfather, which for many years has hung on the walls of the 11 homes my wife and I have had through our travels. It’s not just a picture of my grandfather but of what he was involved in at the time, and after, the Jefferson Highway was formed. It’s a picture of his company car and points out that Gus Cedardahl, along with his brother Oscar, hand-painted thousands of sign markers and telephone poles along the Jefferson Highway route. Gus Cedardahl painted the JH logo on every other telephone pole and bridge, and every other opportune location. The box on the side of his auto reads “official marker” and “Cedardahl Sign Company, Owatonna, Minn.

My grandfather, Gus Cedardahl and his brother Oscar, were born in Lerum, Sweden, near Gothenburg and immigrated to the United States around 1887. They moved to Faribault for a few years and then to Owatonna. Gus became an outstanding leader in Owatonna civic affairs and a brother-partner in a nationally known woodworking and custom furniture establishment. They built furniture for George Hormel in Austin, Minn., and the Mayo family in Rochester, Minn., along with fixtures for some of the churches in Owatonna. As a businessman, Gus was particularly prominent in community leadership. He served as fifth ward alderman for four years, 1910 to 1914, and as the ward’s representative on the school board 1918 to 1926. He gave much effort to and saw the erection of the (then) junior/senior high school.

In addition to the elective offices, he served as a member of the Owatonna city hospital board for several years. He was one of the pioneers in the formation of the Steele County Agricultural Society and devoted much time and energy to its activities as director. Gus and his wife Mary and the nine girls they raised had owned and operated a food stand at the Steele County Fair for many years. They not only ran the food stand for 16 years, but Gus and his brother also built the food stand.

National prominence was achieved personally for his work and leadership he assumed in Minnesota’s early efforts to obtain good roads. Mostly any roads built at that time were the responsibility of each state, county of the local town. Those efforts were pushed by the business people and farmers who needed the roads for the success of their livelihood. Each town and community would form associations, raise the money and begin building what they needed. It went from small town to small town and eventually to the state borders. There the next state would take over. It soon became a national effort and finally became the first north-south road. It was named for President Thomas Jefferson, the Jefferson Highway.

This roadway, nicknamed “From Palm to Pine,” stretched from Winnipeg, Canada, to New Orleans, La. A 2,200-mile stretch of road that was conceived in 1915, dedicated in 1919 and completed in 1926. It was the culmination of many dreams, much sweat and tears, hard work and probably a fair amount of frustration. Through the development of the many local associations and a national Jefferson Highway Association, and years of construction, the roadway was being improved with road gravel, asphalt and finally concrete, to take it to a brand-new level. A National Jefferson Highway Association was formed and a trial trip was in the making to show the possibilities of the highway for auto travel. This trial run started in Winnipeg and ended in New Orleans. Over the years of construction, local communities would offer road tours from one point to another, and some people would simply take off on their own

The highway was to be designated and marked by a JH logo. The highway marking started in Winnipeg in the fall of 1925 and was expected to be completed by the time the “Pine to Palm” winter motor tour started its trip over the highway from Winnipeg, which set out in January of 1926.

Throughout the Internet, there are various sites and blogs relating to the highway progression, the towns and cities it went through and the interesting sites along the way. It has maps outlining the route. The point is that the project was the beginning of the highway as we know it today. The marking of posts and bridge abutments with the JH logo was an undertaking that took approximately one year, the end of 1925 through the spring of 1926.

I have no idea how fast the marking party drove or how much time it took to stop and set up for marking and painting the posts for each JH logo. I read somewhere that some locations throughout the trip had speed limits of 20 miles per hour. So, from Lincoln, Minn., to Dennison, Texas, I assume, could possibly have taken around three months or more. At any rate, they reached The Red River around January 1926, about the same time a group of 31 automobiles loaded with about 100 highway enthusiasts headed south from Winnipeg to New Orleans.

Their trip was to see exactly what this new Jefferson Highway was about. They more than likely stopped at various major cities and towns along the way and were met with all the other party goers who were excited about the new north-south highway. It must have opened up a new set of travel plans for many of the people along the way.

Not long after the Jefferson Highway was completed, in early 1927, the government was moving toward designing a road and highway numbering system. But the completion of the Jefferson Highway project showed the rest of the civic-minded people that working together for the betterment of the communities is the only way to go.

I and my family are very proud of my Grandfather Gus and Great-uncle Oscar — that they had the business sense and fortitude to take on that gigantic project.

Thomas Francis Olejnicak is retired and living in Glenwood, Minn. This is a rural community north and west of Minneapolis, St. Paul.