A new film that credits Des Moines publisher E.T. Meredith as founder of the long-forgotten Jefferson Highway will be shown for the first time at 6 p.m. tonight (Sept. 23) at the Iowa State Historical Building. 

Meredith promoted the 2,300-mile road in 1915 as a way to connect Winnipeg, Canada, and New Orleans through Des Moines. 

The film coincides with the 100th anniversary of the first trip on the highway, which is named for Thomas Jefferson, who acquired the Louisiana Purchase, through which the road passes.

The founder of Successful Farming and Better Homes and Gardens magazines came up with the concept of a national north-south highway three years after failing to place Des Moines on the Lincoln Highway, the original transcontinental road between New York and San Francisco, according to Loring Miller, a retired insurance agent and highway history buff. 

Miller lives in Leon, the southernmost Iowa town on the route, and speaks often about the Jefferson Highway. 

Last year, Mary Johnston, mother of documentary filmmaker Darrell Johnston, heard Miller and mentioned the highway to her son. 

Darrell Johnston persuaded a partner, Josiah Laubenstein, to help him videotape a trip down the Jefferson in the family’s 1953 Dodge. Their effort became the 100-minute film “Less Traveled: A Journey from Pine to Palm,” which premiers tonight.

“Pine to Palm,” was a catchphrase aimed at tourists, Johnston said. It reflects the highway’s endpoints in Winnipeg’s pine trees and Louisiana’s palms.

The goal in 1915 was to join existing roads to create 2,300 miles of hard surface. The Iowa portion mostly followed modern U.S. Highway 65 from Minnesota through Mason City to Colo; then it cut over to Ames (on U.S. 30 — the Lincoln Highway) before heading south on U.S. 69 to Des Moines and on to Missouri. 

Meredith’s original interest, according to great-granddaughter Mell Meredith Frazier, was improving farm-to-market roads. But once he saw the possibilities of the Lincoln Highway, he began advocating the commercial advantages of longer routes through Des Moines.  

With the automobile still in its infancy, most roads were dirt and had to be dragged regularly to keep them passable.  Because there were no organized highway departments, Miller said, property owners were often given tax breaks to drag roads adjacent to their land. 

By the time Meredith began promoting the Jefferson, he was already well known in business and politics. He served several terms as a director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce beginning in 1914 and was later a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. 

A Democrat, Meredith ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1914 and for governor of Iowa in 1916. He was Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of agriculture in 1920, and a favorite-son candidate for president in 1924. In June 1928, Meredith, 51, died unexpectedly while others were touting him as a “dry” alternative to Al Smith, who lost to Republican Herbert Hoover in the fall.

The Jefferson Highway Association’s organizational meetings were held in New Orleans in November 1915. Meredith was elected the group’s first president, and for the first two years the association’s office was in Meredith’s then-new headquarters in the 1700 block of Locust St. in Des Moines.

Planning for the road moved quickly, and during the summer of 1916 a promotional caravan of more than 2,700 cars made the first trip from Winnipeg to New Orleans.

It was not until the late 1920s that most of the Jefferson had hard surfaces, meaning gravel. By then, though, the name was quickly fading as efforts to create a national highway numbering system advanced.  

The screening tonight is free. Just be at the Historical Building before 6 p.m.