Alma Rittenberry

Alma Rittenberry Alma Rittenberry, (1858-1930) was a leader of the Good Roads Movement in Alabama during the first decades of the twentieth century. She was instrumental in developing and advocating for the Jackson Memorial Highway from Chicago to New Orleans and its successor, the North-South National Bee Line Highway, which became U.S. Highway 31. She was active in the women’s club movement of the era and was a supporter of woman’s suffrage as well.

Rittenberry was born in Campbellsville, Tennessee, in November 1858, to Isaac James Rittenberry and Mary Eliza (Molly) Campbell Rittenberry. She was related through her mother to Alexander Hamilton and Davy Crockett. Her grandfather Hamilton Crockett Campbell was one of the Tennessee volunteers who accompanied Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813-14, and her father was a captain in the 53rd Tennessee Regiment of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As a child, she spent summers living near the Natchez Trace, absorbing her relatives’ stories of frontier adventure and romance. Later in her life, she would romanticize her family’s history as well as that of the highway routes she advocated in her writing.

In 1881, her family moved to Birmingham, Jefferson County, a city then growing so rapidly that it soon became known as the “Magic City.” It is unclear what Rittenberry did there—her obituaries do not mention her occupation, describing her as a “noted church and social worker,” and she never married. In this era, church groups, women’s clubs, and philanthropy became very common and acceptable ways for women to enter public life when most of the routes open to men were closed to them. Rittenberry was a parishioner at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham and a member of many clubs, including the Birmingham Equal Suffrage Association, the League of Southern Women Writers, the Birmingham Writers’ Club, the Poetry Society of Alabama, and the Birmingham Democratic Women’s Club. Her most important affiliations were with two lineage societies, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Daughters of 1812.

Rittenberry mentioned her membership in the Daughters of 1812 extensively in her writings because it introduced her to her life-defining crusade, advocacy for long-distance memorial highways, a significant aspect of the Good Roads Movement. In 1909, chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began marking roadways in commemoration of figures or important trails in American history. For example, DAR chapters in Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado cooperated to mark the Old Santa Fe Trail; the Mississippi DAR marked the Natchez Trace, and the New York DAR marked the Old Post Road in honor of writer Washington Irving. The Alabama chapters of the DAR began marking trails they christened the Jefferson Highway (named for Thomas Jefferson) and the Andrew Jackson Memorial Highway. Rittenberry wrote that she became interested in the work, and when the Daughters of 1812 formed in 1910, she secured the position of chair of the Jackson Highway Committee.

Good Roads Movement In May 1911 in Birmingham, delegations from the Alabama DAR, UDC, and Daughters of 1812 individually presented their projects to the Fourth National Road Congress, a coalition of organizations connected with the Good Roads Movement. Rittenberry impressed the gathering enough that the minutes praised her speech, and she received unanimous support for her resolution in support of the Daughters of 1812 project to link county roads into a Jackson Memorial Highway from Chicago through Nashville and Mobile to New Orleans. From 1911 to 1915, Rittenberry diligently campaigned for this road under the auspices of the Daughters of 1812. She attended the Alabama Good Roads Association meeting in Selma, Dallas County, in 1912, where she and attorney Maud McClure Kelly spoke to 2,500 delegates. Rittenberry also spoke to numerous county commissions and local chambers of commerce to urge them to link their roads with those of their neighbors to create the Jackson Highway and wrote articles for magazines like Southern Good Roads. In addition, by 1915 she had made two trips along the entire Jackson Highway route, speaking to commercial and political groups along the way. She paid her own expenses as well as the office expenses for the Daughters of 1812 Jackson Highway Committee, often by selling dollar subscriptions to Southern Good Roads during her travels.

By 1915, however, she realized her plan was not coming to fruition under the Daughters of 1812, so she formed the Jackson Highway Association. She thought it unbecoming for a woman to found a highway advocacy group, so she worked behind the scenes. She quietly invited Good Roads advocate Peter Atherton of Louisville, Kentucky, to become president and arranged the vote in his favor. Rittenberry favored a highway network that linked the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico directly through Alabama, with a branch to Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie. At two raucous meetings in November 1916 and January 1917, the Jackson Highway Association rejected the Alabama route in favor of a competing route along the route of the 1820 Jackson’s Military Road from Nashville through Mississippi to New Orleans, citing Mississippi’s claims of significant funds for construction. These claims later proved to be erroneous. Newspapers reported that the January meeting took place in the auditorium of Birmingham’s Tutwiler Hotel, with the executive committee on the stage and association members in the audience. Rittenberry became so agitated at what she regarded as a betrayal that she charged to the stage numerous time and reminded Atherton that she arranged his presidency, shouting that the highway’s namesake, Andrew Jackson, would have been much more chivalrous towards her opinions.

Rittenberry and other Alabama members of the Jackson Highway Association resigned immediately and within a few weeks formed the North-South National Bee Line Highway Association to support a route directly through Alabama from Nashville to Mobile, with a branch planned from Montgomery through Dothan, Houston County, to Tampa, Florida. Rittenberry was elected an honorary lifetime member and asked to design the highway marking emblem. She agreed and also took on several other duties. As she had in support of the Jackson Highway, Rittenberry traveled the length of the proposed route, urging commercial and civic clubs and county commissions to link their roads with those of their neighbors. She continued to eschew federal aid, even though the 1916 Federal Aid Highway Act, shepherded through the U.S. Senate by Alabamian John H. Bankhead, provided matching funds to such projects. Her objection likely stemmed from her belief that county cooperation was a faster way to build the highway.

America’s entry into World War I overshadowed the Good Roads Movement. Rittenberry largely faded from the historical record for a time, but she did make speeches to citizen groups to encourage civilian contributions to the war effort. She reappears in newspaper accounts of Bee Line Highway Association meetings and as a petitioner to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1920 urging it to pass the Road Bond Amendment to fund statewide highway construction and secure federal matching grants.

Rittenberry disappears from the records again until 1929, when she is quoted in a Birmingham News article about naming a park on Red Mountain after county commissioner and future Birmingham mayor Alexander O. Lane. She recalled speaking before the Birmingham City Commission 16 years earlier to advocate removal of the smallpox and tuberculosis camps on that land and converting it into a park that now hosts the Birmingham Zoo and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

Rittenberry died on April 17, 1930, at her family home in Homewood, the victim of heart disease. Her sister, Mary, described Rittenberry as hot-tempered and impulsive but honest and genuine. Her brothers, Alex and Baxter Rittenberry, paid for her funeral and burial in the Campbell-Rittenberry cemetery in Campbellsville, Tennessee. Her grave is marked by a simple footstone inscribed simply with her name, “Alma.”

Additional Resources

Grady, Alan. “Aunt Babe, Uncle Simp, and the Origins of U.S. Highway 31.” Alabama Heritage 47 (Winter 1998): 8-21.

Olliff, Martin T. “‘The Most Famous Good Roads Woman in the United States’: Alma Rittenberry of Birmingham.” Alabama Review 63 (April 2010): 83–109.

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