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Story Archives: Colonel's Trace hype draws statewide following
|Colonel's Trace hype draws statewide following|
(Third in a Series)
By JACK D. ELLIOTT
In early December 1933 the Webster Progress announced that "Col. Jim Walton, International Hobo" was busy organizing The Natchez Trace Military Highway Association.
However, organizing required travel, and travel required money, and Walton seldom had any. Yet he did have friends. T.T. Martin, publicity director for the Gulf, Mobile & Northern Railroad, generously assisted by providing him with free trips on the railroad. On one such trip, Martin recalled,
"Jim brought out a sheaf of foolscap paper captioned 'Natchez Trace [Military Highway] Association.'" Membership was for the stated purpose of preserving the memory of the Natchez Trace, and the equally worthy, if unstated, purpose of providing Jim with as many dollars as he could enlist members. I think I had the distinction of being the first member, but by night Jim had signed up quite a few people.
"We made three more trips, and the membership roster continued to grow as Jim went from one group to another telling of the Trace and its need for preservation in some enduring form."
Walton continued to crisscross Mississippi enlisting members from the ranks of politicians, government agencies, civic clubs, and patriotic organizations, extolling the history of the Trace and its potential for becoming an international highway. An organizational convention of the Association, he announced, would be held on January 10-11, 1934, at the Edwards Hotel in Jackson and would include representatives from counties along the Trace's route along with members of the DAR and UDC.
Walton's press releases heralded the growing political support and the number of dignitaries to attend the convention. Among them -- or so it was claimed-- would be the sultry young actress Tallulah Bankhead. A native of Alabama -- her father, uncle, and grandfather had served in Congress and the Senate, her aunt was director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History -- Miss Bankhead was beautiful and controversial, notorious for her sexual escapades. The prospect of hob-nobbing with a movie star -- a sex symbol at that -- must have inspired many prospective male delegates.
Not everyone was inspired though. The Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Dunbar Rowland, made clear that he was neither impressed by the project nor the promoter. Writing to a friend, he confided: "In the matter of this ballyhoo and newspaper propaganda about the Natchez Trace, I do not take the matter seriously --. I have known the old gentleman [Walton] who seems to head this movement and I think I know him thoroughly. The first time I ever saw him he tried to borrow $5.00 from me --. I have given this matter considerable thought and I am convinced that I am right in having nothing to do with it." In another letter he wrote, "I have very serious doubts, however, as to the feasibility or wisdom of attempting to induce the Federal government to reopen and pave the old Trace." He pointed out that much of the road was still in use, while the commemorative aspect had been ably handled by the DAR.
On New Year's Eve, Walton attended the Governor's reception, where he basked in the limelight. Although the Governor's Mansion was not the palace of the Czar (where he often bragged of having stayed), it was a promising beginning. A few days later he was again at the center of attention as crowds of politicians, agency representatives, and over 150 delegates converged on the Edwards Hotel to help organize his association. Many were no doubt disappointed when Tallulah Bankhead and other promised dignitaries did not appear -- they probably never intended to attend -- but the meeting proceeded without them.
Journalist E.T. Winston of Pontotoc, known for his imaginative local history writings, read a paper about the migration of Toltec Indians (ca. 1000 AD) from central Mexico to present-day Mississippi. One group, he related, settled at Natchez, lost its identity, and became the Natchez tribe. Other groups migrated up the Trace and became the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Although basically nonsense, the paper did have exciting implications for the international aspirations of the proposed highway. More sober notes, however, were sounded by National Park Service historians Olaf Hagen and Stuart Cuthbertson, whose presence heralded the beginning of their agency's involvement.
Among the main accomplishments of the meeting was the organization of the Natchez Trace Military Highway Association. The name was later changed to the Natchez Trace Association after it dawned on someone that the "Military Highway"" component of the name was in error. Officers elected were president, Lucille Mayfield of Amory; vice-president, E.T. Winston; and Colonel Jim as field director.
Despite Rowland's lack of enthusiasm, the fervor for building roads triumphed over any qualms regarding history. The convention was a success; most of the supporters of the project were in fact not overly concerned with its historical merit, probably regarding an occasional fiction as a necessary means to their end.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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