Within the past year, a number of Virginia highway signs have been erected in Alexandria. It’s always great to see these markers. Solid in strength and uniformly presented with black lettering against a silver background, they command our attention and speak to us in ways other markers cannot.
One thing I never thought about, however, was - how did this program get started? Who was behind the effort?
I did know that Virginia was one of the first states to get going with a highway marker program (1926). Other states followed suit and off we were as a nation to tell some of our history in this unique way (although wouldn’t it have been better to put the signs, when possible, at intersections?)
The Encyclopedia of Virginia certainly has an excellent primer on how the program got started, but Joseph Bayless has given us what appears to be the definitive account (“An Iron Catalyst: Virginia’s Roadside Historical Markers and the Shaping of a Historical Consciousness”).
There’s a lot to digest, but Bayless makes it clear the critical role played by Dr. Hamilton James Eckenrode. Quite frankly, I had never heard of him.
Google tells us Eckenrode was an author. Bayless pulls him out of the dust bin and tells us much more.
In the “Roaring Twenties,” Americans were piling into their automobiles in record numbers. Highway constructing was booming and people had money in their pockets.
Around the same time, Governor Harry Byrd, elected in 1925, began to give the state a facelift. This included road improvements and drawing attention to the state’s rich history.
As part of that campaign, the idea sprang up to erect historical markers in the state. Similar to today’s “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign, the initiatives were designed to create an appealing state image and increase tourism.
The governor set the stage, but who were the key players? Did any one person stand above the rest?
Bayless points out, “It is not clear who originated the plan to mark historic sites in Virginia.”
But he did find out who took the bull by the horns.
William E. Carson, the Commissioner of the Conservation and Development Commission, created a “Division of Archeology and History.” It would be this new commission that would forge ahead with the plan.
With such a daunting task, Carson knew what was needed - to find someone trained and educated in the state’s history.
In 1926, Douglas Southall Freeman, an esteemed author, historian, and influential newspaper and radio man, suggested Dr. Hamilton James Eckenrode. Freeman himself was a pioneer of sorts, leading an effort that marked about 60 markers of Civil War battlegrounds.
The nomination of Eckenrode was approved. He was given full authority to run the program and to “determine the location of all markers and their inscriptions.”
Eckenrode lived in Fredericksburg at 1405 Washington Avenue East. His resume included a term as the state Historian, a noted author and holding a PhD in history. In 1926, he got down to work. One of his biggest headaches was contested memories. Eckenrode wisely put his foot down on the practice of depending on oral histories. This led to clashes with Carson. Ever the diplomat, Eckenrode soothed over the tensions, but he insisted on a policy of source documents and objective measures.
The program, fully funded by the votes in Richmond, worked like a charm. By 1934, 1,200 markers dotted portions of the state. The marker program not only increased the number of visitors, it also “raised the historical consciousness of both the Commonwealth and the greater United States, framing Virginia as the historical pivot point in the national narrative.”
Eckenrode also wrote tourist literature and maps, which the public ate up. The Commission published a tourist pamphlet, Virginia: The Beckoning Land.
In a way, the pamphlet served as a piece of propaganda to reshape public perception about the Commonwealth. The real genius was not the underlying theme and message presented in the pamphlet, but in actual markers that supported the entire tourist experience.
Bayless also touches on criticisms and shortcomings of the program in its first decades. The markers were printed in black ink but black history was nowhere to be found.
Progress has been made in this aspect of historical marking in Virginia, and that is especially true here in Alexandria. Of the last six state markers erected in the oldest part of the city, five cover history made by African Americans.
That progress exists in a world way beyond the one Dr. Eckenrode and his peers lived in. But we owe them much for the the one they helped start and Joseph Bayless for telling us about it.