Skip directly to content

John Asa Rountree

Martin T. Olliff, Troy University
John Asa Rountree (1867-1936) was a publisher and advocate for the Good Roads Movement, a nationwide effort to improve the nation's roadways at the turn of the twentieth century. He was an important figure in a number of civic and political organizations in the state, particularly in his adopted home of Birmingham, Jefferson County.
John Asa Rountree
Rountree was born in Hartselle, Morgan County, on May 22, 1867, to Scott Lefevre Rountree and Georgia Anna Thompson Rountree; he had one sibling. Scott Rountree founded the town of Hartselle and served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War as a surgeon and later became a local physician and long-time Morgan County health officer. Rountree attended public schools in Hartselle. His journalism career began when he started writing for a Hartselle newspaper at age 12. On March 30, 1887, he began publishing the Alabama Enquirer in Hartselle and in 1895 began publishing a magazine, The Dixie Home. Rountree married Jennie Maude McIver on June 6, 1895, in Opelika, Lee County. She became an active member of several women's clubs, serving as president Alabama chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and designed the official emblems for both the UDC and the Alabama Press Association. John Asa Jr. was born in 1896 and later became an important figure in aviation in Alabama. Daughter Selene was born in 1898 and son McIver was born approximately 1912.
In May 1896, Rountree sold the Enquirer and moved his family to Birmingham, where he became president and manager of the Age-Herald Publishing Company. He sold his interest and resigned those positions in 1897 to devote his time to publishing The Dixie Home. He added The Dixie Manufacturer, the only manufacturing trade magazine published in Alabama at the time, in 1899, and in 1903 he merged his businesses into the Rountree Publishing Company.
Like many young businessmen of his era, Rountree joined private and civic organizations, where he rose to leadership positions. He joined the Alabama Press Association in 1887 and served as secretary from 1892 to 1904. He was a charter member of the Birmingham Press Club and a vice president of the Birmingham Commercial Club. Though he never held public office, he was a member of the Morgan County Democratic Executive Committee and served one year on the Alabama Democratic Executive Committee.
Rountree was most notable for his work in the Good Roads Movement in Alabama and the nation. The initiative sought improved roads and the creation of highway systems throughout counties, states, and the nation. He and then-Alabama congressman John H. Bankhead founded the North Alabama Good Roads Association in 1898, and Rountree served as its secretary after it revived in 1901. When that organization merged with two others in 1906 to become the Alabama Good Roads Association (AGRA), Rountree served as its secretary and de facto director into the 1920s.
Good Roads Movement
Rountree focused AGRA's mission on securing state financial aid to counties to form highways by connecting some of their roads, to pay for this highway network with a $50 million bond issue, and to create the Alabama Highway Commission to manage road improvement projects across Alabama. The organization achieved two of its goals in 1907, when voters amended the Alabama Constitution to fund a highway commission and make small grants to build county roads. Because the 1907 legislature did not implement the amendment, AGRA stepped up its public agitation until the 1911 legislature appropriated $154,000 annually to create and fund the five-member Alabama Highway Commission, hire a state engineer and staff, and provide $2,000 grants to county-level road projects.
To generate excitement for the efforts, Rountree promoted AGRA's annual meetings with great fanfare and in 1911 secured Birmingham as the site for the National Good Roads Association annual meeting. He also helped the Birmingham Ledger organize multiple "path-finding tours" to scout road routes and generate excitement for a Tennessee-to-the Gulf Coast highway and two east-west highways across Alabama. After 1925, these routes were incorporated into U.S. highways 31, 78, and 80.
In January 1912, Rountree conceived the Good Roads Days holiday, during which good roads associations, chambers of commerce, county probate judges, and the Alabama governor's office called upon residents to donate their labor for three days a year to improve rural roads. In this era, most roads in Alabama were dirt, so men working with shovels cleared drainage ditches and resurfaced roads while horse-drawn plows and scrapers filled mudholes and smoothed the surface. Keeping with gendered roles of that time, women cooked meals for the male crews, and children provided water and ran errands. Alabama turned Good Roads Days into a legal holiday in 1915, and many rural districts observed it into the late 1920s. Other states adopted similar holidays during the era.
John Hollis Bankhead
By 1913, Rountree had turned his attention toward advocating for good roads nationally. He founded the United States Good Roads Association, made himself secretary, and convinced Sen. John H. Bankhead to act as president. This new organization lobbied Congress for federal funds to improve roads and create an interstate highway system. Bankhead ushered through Congress the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which provided matching grants to states to connect regional highways into a nationwide network. Rountree was particularly interested in transcontinental roads across the southern states and in 1916 organized the Bankhead Highway Association, one of some 250 "named highway associations" that existed in the United States.
When established, the Bankhead Highway, ran from Washington, D.C., across the South to San Diego, California. Bankhead traveled hundreds of miles of the route while Roundtree organized annual meetings along its length.
Bankhead Highway
In 1920, Roundtree convinced the U.S. Army to conduct a convoy of trucks along the route, just as it had along the Lincoln Highway a year earlier. Congress reauthorized the Federal Aid Road Act in 1921, and the change in road improvement from private advocacy to state management led Rountree to shift his attention from advocacy for good roads generally to promoting the Bankhead Highway and his private business affairs. Four years later, the federal Bureau of Public Roads (part of the Department of Agriculture) and the American Association of State Highway Officials incorporated the Bankhead Highway into the new federal numbered highway system as U.S. 78.
Rountree spent the remainder of his life working in publishing and remained president of the Rountree Publishing Company; his son John Asa Rountree Jr. edited the Dixie Manufacturer for a few years. Rountree died of a heart attack at his Birmingham home on July 9, 1936, at the age of 69. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.
Additional Resources
DuBose, Joel Campbell. Notable Men of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical. Vol. 2. Atlanta, Ga: Southern Historical Association, 1904.
Preston, Howard Lawrence. Dirt Roads to Dixie: Accessibility and Modernization in the South, 1885-1935. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Published:  November 6, 2014   |   Last updated:  December 1, 2014