Local road offers glimpse into the past

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This story appeared in June 2007.

Feed Your Oats on the OST

By Pamela Price
Contributing Writer
Hill Country View

History is tricky. It can fashion one aspect of culture into an icon and obscure almost entirely another facet worthy of acclaim. Take for instance, the Old Spanish Trail (OST), a 1920s era auto highway, and precursor to modern IH-10, that traversed the nation from Florida to California. However, unlike Route 66, which was created in the same decade, there’s no unforgettable mid-century song to sing off-key about the OST, no collection of “Made in China” commemorative plastic doodads to clutter your fridge.

That may change soon.

San Antonio-area historians and conservationists are eager to educate locals about the OST’s historic 32-mile “Headquarter’s Section” that runs from downtown San Antonio to Boerne. For example, on June 10, members of the Old Spanish Trail Centennial Celebration Association (or, as they refer succinctly to themselves, the “OST 100”) hosted a JuneOSTour, part of a series of public events in keeping with the group’s effort to preserve and promote the historic route. Lead organizer Charlotte Kahl believes such experiences will help people “visualize the ambiance of early auto travel through the Hill Country, before it is totally hidden by development.”

By way of background, the roots of the almost 3000-mile OST reach back to before World War I. The notion was to create the shortest route between both the Atlantic and Pacific, with St. Augustine and San Diego serving as endpoints. Through a series of conferences held along the eventual route, citizens and business leaders gradually built local and federal support.

Initially, there was a military rational for creating the roadway. General John J. Pershing, having been forced to use motorized vehicles on uneven, muddy and gravely roads in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916 and in Europe during WWI, argued for a highway across the South that could be used to for defense. Later, the case for making a pleasurable, easy-to-drive path across the southern half of the country gained greater traction.

The OST wasn’t completed until 1929. “There were three main reasons why it was time consuming to build the OST,” says Kahl, a San Antonio resident. ”First, there was the terrain. Bridges to span waterways along the Gulf Coast and canyons in the West, in particular, were expensive. And in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the OST cut through some of the poorest counties in the poorest states in the nation. Then you’ve got the tumultuous times of the First World War. Toward the end of completion, you’ve got the start of the Great Depression. So there were pauses, starts and stops, that were problematic all along the way.”

Crucial to building public support for the project was a bit of creative public relations work undertaken by Harral B. Ayres, a successful former East Coast financier. Working first locally on the OST for the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and later as managing director of the Old Spanish Trail Association, Ayres drew connections between the proposed modern roadway and Spanish history. Furthermore, “the development and marketing of the OST had much to do with tourism and the family car,” observes Dennis Medina, UTSA special collections librarian. “When the family car became a staple of middle-class life (in the ‘20s), there was an explosion of ‘opportunities’ to exploit it.”

Some estimates for the final cost of construction on the OST exceed $100 million dollars, a staggering sum given the era. “It’s very difficult to know for certain how much money went into the project,” says Kahl. “In the beginning, the OST budget covered building costs, but as time went on, the budget was more for promotion than for gravel, trees, etcetera. Much of the major costs were hidden in state budgets.”

Although regional travel offices continued to promote the OST off-and-on well into the ‘60s, new fangled interstates and air travel resulted in the route being largely forgotten. Yet along the path the roadway cut, historic restaurants, gas stations, hotels and other vestiges of the OST’s impact on the nations’ economy remain, many of them now in disrepair.

Flash forward to the end of the 20th century. Already a decade into efforts to revitalize San Antonio’s Fredericksburg Road corridor, local conservationists were perplexed to encounter a bench on Vance Jackson bearing the letters “O-S-T”. With a bit of research, the OST revealed its secrets one by one. “It wasn’t a major, earth-shattering revelation,” recalls Marianna Jones, a long-time San Antonio Conservation Association member and former president. She continues, “But it did add a whole new aspect to what we knew about San Antonio history.”

Currently, Kahl and Jones are working to preserve remaining Bexar County OST artifacts and sites while undertaking the arduous work of increasing awareness of the OST Centennial, including a proposed 2029 cross-country motorcade. “We began in 2000 and are taking our time with this project because all of the urban OST corridors are in the oldest sections of town. They are often economically forgotten areas of our communities that need real help and a long time to turn around,” says Kahl, adding that by 2029 she and other OST 100 members hope to have “every business along the route freshly painted, looking good, fully stocked and ready to greet people.”

That’s a tall order, and organizers aren’t planning to go it alone. By reaching out to civic organizations, community leaders and even neighborhood associations along the roadway, the OST 100 is replicating many of the grassroots techniques and strategies Ayres and others applied almost one hundred years ago. “We don’t want to impose what we think ‘should’ happen along the OST from the top down,” says Kahl. “And (the plan) is working. Take the Boerne Stage Road corridor. That was one of the area’s where we couldn’t get any footing on economic development efforts or beautification efforts. And we tried. But something has changed and now people are asking for us.”

Kahl expresses pleasure that nascent efforts to protect Boerne Stage Road and Scenic Loop from further sprawl are being pinned, in large part, to the historic value of the roadways and their vistas. “I hope that what is happening now will trigger even further interest in the OST,” adds Jones. “Too often, when you mention the Old Spanish Trail, people think you are talking about the Camino Real or Old San Antonio Road. But through the work of (Kahl) in particular, people are becoming more aware. She is the sparkplug in this project, you know.”

Hmm… a tenacious sparkplug. A forgotten highway steeped in American history. Add a forgotten lover, an old truck, a clever songwriter and look out Route 66.

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