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The Changing Face of the Commercial Landscape
in Murfreesboro, TN

(approx. 10 pages)

America's small town commercial district suffered at the hands of the automobile and the highway. In its early years the downtown was the central meeting place. When the modern highway arrived to take the place of the rural back road and the side street, the highway killed off the downtown and moved commercial life to the strip., a place where speed was more important than service. Only within the past few years, with a renewed interest in the central business district, has the American downtown started to see a comeback.

The story of highways and America's small town downtown begins with the automobile. "Twenty-six million motor vehicles had been registered in the United States by 1930, and half a million miles of surfaced rural highways, twice the existing railroad mileage, had been completed." The sheer numbers of automobiles being sold and roadways being constructed from the turn of the century to 1930 shows how a new found enthusiasm for touring and travel, for exploring new places, and having fun with the car created a new love of the road. This love of the road, though, had some unintended consequences.

  • "Highway improvements disrupted and sometimes critically damaged a town's landscape. Main Street was congested with highway traffic. Residential streets were converted to commerce. At a town's edge the highway evolved as a commercial strip, and in many towns Main Street declined in favor of new highway-oriented commerce…A highway-oriented landscape came to dominate small-town America."
  • In the following discussion, the changing landscape of the small town and its roads will be explored. The shift from "Main Street," or the downtown commercial area, to "Broad Street," or the commercial strip, will be documented through the example town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Murfreesboro is a prime example of how the construction of a new highway robbed America's downtown of commercial life.


    Murfreesboro's Main Street

    Murfreesboro has always been a city of crossroads. Perhaps it was because Murfreesboro is only a few miles from the geographic center of Tennessee. Maybe roads came to town because Murfreesboro was the capitol of Tennessee from 1819 to 1825. Most likely the preponderance of roads was because middle Tennessee lacked a major railroad until late into the nineteenth century. Whatever the reason was for these roads, Murfreesboro has been a major hub for the roadside traveler.

    Between 1830 and 1860 there were more than 50 turnpikes constructed or chartered in Rutherford County, all of them leading to Murfreesboro. There were tollhouses placed every five miles, most were laid with gravel, and were about 18 to 30 feet wide. Local men who would report back to the county government about their condition surveyed these roads. From1860 to the turn of the century, these roads would continue to function as toll roads, when the county government would obtain them as public roads. This was Murfreesboro's first roadside landscape.

    At the turn of the century, Murfreesboro was a small, but bustling town. The Public Square, with the county courthouse as the centerpiece, was the hub of commercial activities. Drug stores, cafes, garages, hardware stores, pool halls, and department stores were arranged around the square. Horses and buggies would descend upon the downtown for shopping days or a public auction. Murfreesboro was a common town scene as the new century dawned. Chester Liebs found in his book, Main Street to Miracle Mile that:

  • "Although they differed widely in size, scale, and density, by the turn of the twentieth century most Main Streets shared a number of characteristics… They…served as the civic and religious hubs for the communities around them. Main Street was the home not only of stores and offices, but also of imposing churches, theaters, banks, hotels, courthouses, city halls, war memorials, libraries, and other banners of community well-being…Most importantly, all Main Streets…were magnets for trade."
  • Rutherford County began acquiring turnpikes and turned them into public roads around this time. Roads were improved somewhat for public passage, mostly for the use of local farmers to get to the center of town. However, these roads were far from being like current rural highways. However, there was a new commercial landscape on the horizon. A new road was being conceived that would pass through Murfreesboro. This highway was the Dixie Highway.

    Conceived by Carl Graham Fisher, the owner of several hundred acres of land in Miami, Florida, the Dixie Highway would become one of the most famous north-south linkages in the nation. The highway ran from Sault Saint Marie in Michigan on two different branches, one east and one west, to Florida. The western branch passed directly through Murfreesboro. The Dixie Highway was the most important road for towns it passed through because it brought the tourist and his dollar to the small town. Traveling from large urban areas towards the sunny beaches of Florida these tourists required gas stations to fill up their automobiles and beds on which to sleep. Small towns were more than happy to provide these services. There was no end to the range of tourist focused commercial architecture that could be constructed by the local people to service those on the Dixie Highway. Howard Preston, in Dirt Roads to Dixie, found that the new automobile culture on the Dixie Highway was having a impact on local businesses.

  • "Tourist camps, auto courts, service stations, and private homes open to the public for overnight accommodations were all new to the roadscape in the south during the 1920's and 1930's. They were expression of the thriving new national car culture and symbolic of the new wave of modernization engulfing the region. That the well-traveled interstate highways leading through the South carried so many potential consumers caused merchants, manufacturers, businessmen, and anyone who offered something for sale to view the road for the first time as a commercial space and not just a corridor connecting one place with another."
  • The Dixie Highway was Murfreesboro's first step in the process of moving the commercial area away from the Public Square. It created "gasoline alleys" where the highway entered or left the town. There are still some of these buildings extant on College Street. It created a boom in tourist homes and camps around the area. A example of a tourist camp comes from a 1923 booster book for Murfreesboro. The image shows the camp ground with the caption: "This farm is owned by A.S. Comar and located about three miles south of Murfreesboro, Tennessee on the Dixie Highway, and is headquarters for tourists that camp over night, going to and from Florida. It is an ideal place to camp and a very valuable farm." Thus began the time when the tourist had reached Middle Tennessee.

    By the 1920's, America's love of the automobile was in full bloom. Shaking off the feelings of World War I, they toured the countryside with reckless abandon. Rural road construction was being completed, encouraged by the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act in 1916. People were buying cars as quickly as they were produced. Out on the roadside, businesses boomed with every car that came down the road. "Businesses by the thousands germinated along the 1920's roadside. New entrepreneurs--from farmers and factory workers to teachers and retirees--built refreshment stands, restaurants, stores, cabin camps, and other wayside emporia, while petroleum companies made their products available beyond the limits of Main Street and the taxpayer strip."

    Even as the nation entered the Great Depression, roadside business did not yield. Americans were using the highways more than they ever had before, mostly in an effort to escape their own problems. Roadside establishments thrived. In many places along the old Dixie Highway route, buildings of this boom era can be found. Murfreesboro's Public Square had not yet lost its commercial district at this time, because the Dixie Highway wound its way downtown and through the Square. Unusual to find major highways of the period going through the downtown and not bypassing them on a side street, Murfreesboro was one of the exceptions. However, by the end of World War II, the new American roadside landscape was going to catch up with Murfreesboro.


    Murfreesboro's Broad Street

    In 1947 construction began on a new four-lane highway from Nashville that approximated the route of the old Dixie Highway. This was to be the new US 41, the designation for most of the Dixie Highway. Construction had reached Lokey Avenue by 1950, according to photographs of the period. Murfreesboro had joined America in the highway age. Planners began the process of finding the best way to bypass the Public Square. This required planning and use of a common tool of the 1950s, urban renewal.

    Located on South Maple Street, near the railroad station, warehouses, and factories was a section of town called the "bottoms." The bottoms were the slum area in Murfreesboro, filled with ramshackle houses and dirt paths for roads. Running through this area was a small creek that would overflow from time to time and flood the local housing stock. Examining pictures of the time show deplorable conditions. This was the area that the new highway would be constructed. Those living in the bottoms were to be transplanted to a new housing development further out Main Street.

    When the construction of the new road began, Murfreesboro was following a trend that was common around America. In places like Providence, Rhode Island, New York, or Chicago, areas that were deemed to be slums were cleared out to build highways or public structures. The people living in these areas would be shunted to another part of town away from the new highway or public structure.

    The new highway through the bottoms was called Broad Street, and was intended to serve as a bypass of the square. Bypasses had been gaining popularity during the year leading up to the construction of Broad Street, as documented by Chester Liebs.

  • "Bypass roads offered still another choice site for wayside enterprise. During the second quarter of the century, the idea of rerouting traffic around congested business districts gained considerable popular support. Parkway advocate Charles Downing Lay championed the motorists' point of view: 'There is nothing so gratifying to long distance motorists as a byway or by-pass for every city and village, for the difficulty of going through towns congested with local traffic, pedestrians and parked cars is the great cause of low average speeds on long runs.'"
  • With the Broad Street complete, the roadside landscape of Murfreesboro began to change. A quick comparison of the 1940, 1950, and 1960 telephone directories shows how businesses filtered off Public Square and the former Dixie Highway onto Broad Street. In 1940, there were seventeen automobile related activities between Church Street and the Nashville Highway, six of them specifically gas stations. Eleven gas stations were counted on the same stretch in the years just before the arrival of Broad Street. Within ten years of the construction of Broad Street there were fourteen gas stations between Church Street and Lokey Avenue, not to mention a host of motels, restaurants, businesses, and a shopping center. Only four service stations were listed on College Street at this same time. The quicker services of gas stations, motels and fast food on the strip proved popular for a nation of young people with fast cars and plenty of time to cruise.

    Broad Street became a common American landscape The Imperial Inn and the Motel Murfreesboro are both great examples of motels from the strip. The bowling alley, and the skating rink just behind it are both good examples of entertainment for the young people who had the ability to travel by car to their recreation. Gas stations and fast food restaurants filled up the roadside. Broad Street became Murfreesboro's new downtown. Chester Liebs, in Main Street to Miracle Mile, saw how America was changing.

  • "Now, along the same roads where travelers once rented cabins to avoid the downtown hotel, and families on Sunday outing stopped to pick up fresh corn at the farm stand, postwar motorists cruised for a place to by groceries or a suite of bedroom furniture. The old approach strip had clearly changed. The postwar roadside was now the all-purpose, intense, high-speed linear commercial corridor…"
  • After Broad Street had staked its claim on Murfreesboro, the highways would again shift. In the 1970s, Interstate 24 was built to Atlanta, going through Nashville and Murfreesboro. The construction of Interstate 24 and its connector road, Old Fort Parkway, caused commercial activities to move to another part of Murfreesboro. This time they filled in around the interstate access points, not specifically in a linear fashion as Broad Street had done. "The areas around interchanges have also proved to be prime targets for roadside commercial development. Since businesses were prohibited from having direct access to interstates, land around the interchanges became highly sought after and extremely valuable…" Wal-Mart to Waffle House line the roads at both of Murfreesboro's access points.


    Murfreesboro's Return Downtown

    Although Murfreesboro's downtown will never fully recover from the siphoning of business that Broad Street began and the interstate continues, it is beginning to see a comeback. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's "Main Street" program is paying off for the square by bringing in more businesses and promoting the quaintness of the area. The speed and excitement of the strip may have proved its own undoing in the long run, as people long for the slow speed of the downtown. The traveler may not abandon the strip completely, but a short stop in the hardware store in downtown Murfreesboro can remind us of a slower past.

    The roadside landscape of Murfreesboro, Tennessee is a good example of the changes America's small towns have gone through. From first a quiet downtown to a tourist charged highway stop, then on to a fast paced highway strip and the interstate, the roadside landscape is a constantly shifting picture. This picture is one that we should study to better understand ourselves as Americans.

    Often times the commercial landscape and architecture of America is left out of discussion about the past. Residential areas or industrial areas are documented because they are easily tangible to the historian. But, entertainment areas and places where we eat, sleep, and shop are just as important. Careful exploration and discovery of the roadside landscape can give us important lessons for the future. History can be seen through the ways we shop and view our merchandise. By understanding the tourist sites, gas stations, and motels, we can start to understand American's love for travel. We can even start to predict the future of our towns with the roadside landscape. Suburban sprawl should not be viewed as a demon to be killed, but an inevitability that can be guided on to the right course. Just as the highway shows us the path, we can use the highway to guide future planning. Murfreesboro can be a lesson about how a town grows and changes and how to look at the roadside. Hopefully that lesson will be heeded for the future of small towns and the roadside.

    Aaron Marcavitch 2000