SALTILLO, Miss. (AP) A strip of the past runs not far from the southern corporate limits of this northern Lee County city.
The 300 ft. or so left of the first concrete road built in Mississippi stands as a reminder of the work that has pushed Lee County forward in so many ways.
Supervisor Bobby Smith knew that when he had to pave most of what is now known as county Road 681. But he left the strip for posterity, notified the state Department of Archives and History and wants to see the patch of roadway marked with a sign that will mark its history and significance.
“Obviously, saving a piece of our history is important,” he said, “from the standpoint of our children, when they grow up, can ask questions and understand the history of Saltillo, the history of this area.”
Smith said keeping a portion of the road visible seemed important because it has served as a part of the community for many years.
At one time, residents around here just called the strip, “the concrete slab road.” It was aptly titled.
Rickie Longfellow, who has written a brief history of Mississippi roads for the U.S. Department of Transportation, “Back in Time: The Evolution of Mississippi Highways,” said the Lee County concrete road was the first in the state and cost $8,100 per mi. when it was constructed in 1914 as part of a countywide road improvement project by the Lee County Board of Supervisors.
Even the American Concrete Association recognizes it as one of the first in the South, second to a 23-mi. concrete road built in Pine Bluff, Ark., called “Dollarway,” because it cost $1 per linear foot to build.
The story of Lee County’s concrete road is a story of tensions between Tupelo town folk and rural folk in the county, and the need for each to benefit from the other. It’s also part of the continuing story of how the area’s leadership has not been afraid to go outside to seek solutions, according to local historian Bruce Smith.
“The mayor of Tupelo at the time, Mr. Will Robins —known for Robins Field and Robins Street — practically built the road,” said Smith. “He joined with Pvt. John Allen and some contemporary, progressive businessmen to do this.”
Allen was one of the first individuals to move from an outlying village into Tupelo during the late 1880s. He was known as “Pvt. John Allen,” from his Civil War service for the Confederacy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Allen was elected to serve as a representative of the First Congressional District.
Historical accounts of Tupelo and Lee counties during the first decade of the 1900s all agree the town roads became nothing more than great mud holes during rainy seasons, making it difficult for wagons to roll in loaded with farm goods and roll out with supplies from local stores.
“Mr. Robins knew if he wanted to bring farmers into Tupelo, he would have to have a decent way to get them here, and that’s why he wanted to back paved roads,” Smith said.
Robins joined with William D. Anderson, the preceding mayor and state senator in 1909, to work toward improving roads inside and outside the town’s limits. They pulled in other experts, for example, Frank Goodlett, a construction engineer, who came up with the idea of building a concrete road in the county.
“Everything progressive in Tupelo,” said Smith, “Frank Goodlett had a hand in it.”
In 1913, four supervisors, Will Robins, supervisors’ attorney Guy W. Mitchell, Goodlett and Tupelo Journal editor Frank L. Kincannon went to Detroit to look at its concrete roads.
Apparently, they were impressed.
By July 1914, Lee County had built or was in the process of building 49 mi. (79 km) of hard-surface road, part of that near Saltillo.
“It goes to show you that we were on the cutting edge even then,” Smith said.
University of Mississippi sociologist Vaughn Grisham used the building of the paved roads in Lee County in his book, “Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community,” as an example of the way Tupelo leaders worked with others to better the region.
“The freshly paved streets produced an attractiveness to the town that had heretofore been missing,” Grisham wrote. “It increased business opportunities by making the town the retail and wholesale hub for the subregion. It pulled the town together and strengthened a sense of community.”