By the early twentieth century, the inadequate road system in Tennessee, and the South generally, was impeding the region's economic progress. Dust in the dry season and mud in the wet, delays in waiting for ferries to cross the many rivers, and roads that led nowhere or wandered aimlessly across the countryside characterized Tennessee's road system. Beginning in the early part of the century and culminating in the 1920s, the Good Roads Movement organized to improve Tennessee's economic prospects by upgrading and expanding its roads.
The Good Roads Movement had its roots in the “Country Life Movement,” an outgrowth of Populism, which sought to improve rural life and reverse the exodus of young people to the cities. These good roads proponents urged the building and improvement of farm-to-market roads which would not only facilitate the movement of farm produce to market but also provide rural residents, who would not have to move to enjoy them, access to urban entertainment and cultural attractions. In addition, farmers wanted to break the railroad's virtual monopoly on the shipment of farm products. By the early twentieth century, good roads associations began to appear statewide, led by the East Tennessee Good Roads Association formed in Greeneville in 1901. In 1912 the American Highway Association listed thirteen affiliated good roads organizations in Tennessee.
By the mid-teens, however, the impetus and focus on good roads shifted to the cities, where young, middle-class bankers, merchants, businessmen, real estate investors, road builders, and auto dealers touted interstate highways as a way of attracting tourists and northern investors. Several Tennesseans took leadership in this national movement of “highway progressives.” Governor Tom Rye helped organize the first meeting of the Dixie Highway Association in Chattanooga in 1915, and Chattanooga attorney and circuit judge Michael Morrison Allison became the association's first president. Tennesseans also participated in later interstate highway associations, including those supporting the Robert E. Lee Highway, the Andrew Jackson Highway, and the Cincinnati-Lookout Mountain Scenic Highway. These highway progressives organized the Tennessee Good Roads Association in 1922 to promote increased state funding and publicize the need for good roads.
Despite the publicity and efforts of both farmer-led groups and highway progressives, as well as the infusion of federal dollars from the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916, Tennessee's roads had improved little by the 1920s. In 1923 Tennessee had only 244 miles of paved roads. Part of the problem stemmed from the differing goals and tactics employed by the two groups of good roads advocates. The farmers' emphasis on farm-to-market roads and a conservative pay-as-you-go approach to financing conflicted with the strategy of highway progressives, who wanted interstate highways funded by long-term bonds. It required an individual with a foot in each camp, Governor Austin Peay, to energize the stalled road improvements initiative in the 1920s.
Peay first reorganized the State Highway Commission, an agency long characterized by inefficiency and waste. Critics of the three-member commission charged that state and federal highway money disappeared into a black hole of county highway departments, who received little state supervision. Indeed, some observers complained that the only paved roads in the state were those leading to the hometowns or property of commission members. Peay replaced the commission with a single state highway commissioner and gave him complete authority over the routing, building, and maintenance of state roads. Peay also appointed talented and energetic men to the new offices, first James G. Creveling and then C. Neil Bass.
To finance a system of state roads, Peay followed the more conservative position advocated by farmers. He pushed through a gasoline tax and used vehicle registration fees and short-term bonds. This action not only produced the revenue needed for construction and maintenance but also relieved farmers of the burden of financing the system through the property tax. By Peay's second term more that half of all state expenditures went to road building, with the total during his three administrations exceeding $75 million.
By the late 1920s Tennessee had satisfied the demands of both farmers and urban businessmen by completing a paved highway connecting Memphis to Bristol, building four state highways that crossed the state north to south, constructing seventeen bridges over major rivers, and completing most of a statewide system of over 4,000 miles of paved roads that connected every county. These roads transformed the state. They brought millions of tourists to visit Tennessee attractions like the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the Grand Ole Opry. Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville expanded as regional trade centers. And the day of the one-room school effectively ended as rural areas became more accessible and buses provided transportation to newly consolidated schools.
Howard L. Preston, Dirt Roads to Dixie (1991)