U.S. Intellectual History Blog


The AAA projects that 94.5 million Americans will take to the roads this holiday season.  My guess is that well over 94.4 million of them will ignore what might be America’s least successful form of public history, the roadside historical marker.

Most frequently found alongside US, state, and county highways, sometimes placed in a turn-off or rest area, but also occasionally simply planted in the ground alongside the road, roadside historical markers record some authority’s devotion to local history…while the cars whizzing by continually, visibly mark the vast majority of motorists’ utter lack of interest in it.

Roadside historical markers are often historical twice over: while marking a past event, they quickly become historical objects themselves.  As a result, the messages on them frequently are as interesting for the hoary public historiography they instantiate as for the history they’re intended to convey. I remember running across one such sign somewhere in Wyoming or Montana that proudly described the replacement of herds of bison with herds of cattle as a sign of progress.

But what made me think of all of this was reencountering a peculiarity of roadside historical markers in Texas.  All such markers in the Lone Star State seem to be accompanied by plain, brown road-signs that say simply “HISTORICAL MARKER,” with an arrow pointing in the direction of the marker in question.  I suppose these signs will appeal to that small percentage of motorists who would stop for any historical marker if they were simply made more aware of its existence. But a brief, utterly unscientific survey of recent travelers along the route between Wichita Falls and Odessa suggests that these signs attract literally nobody.  How much more difficult would it be to include on these signs a short description of what the marker concerned?  Perhaps some travelers might be more inclined to stop if the sign marked, say, a major cattle trail rather than the site of a former post office (or vice versa).

Instead, the markers seem to be a very unsuccessfully attempt to guilt motorists into paying attention to history…or more likely “Texas history,” that weird, heroic mythos that forms the backbone of civic identity there.  But the markers’ content is just a guess on my part. Because, though I honestly intend to stop one day and check out a Texas historical marker or two, up until this point I’ve always been one of the many who drives on by.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Love this post, Ben!

    As you know, California has its fair share of roadside historical markers, and those of WPA-era construction, especially in the gold country and the high sierra, are fairly monumental. They’re usually built out of mortared river rocks (granite, most of the time) that have been piled high in a cross between a chimney and a cairn, with a bronze plaque affixed to the cairn.

    When we would drive up to Yosemite every summer for our fabulous family vacation — two weeks of tent-camping at 9,000 feet — I used to ask my grandparents what was on this or that roadside marker. My grandfather’s impish answers always involved some variation on Mark Twain — as in, “Mark Twain tied his shoes here,” or “Mark Twain and Bret Harte bought a sandwich here,” or (a perennial favorite with us kids) “Mark Twain took a leak here.” To this day, I can’t drive past a historical marker without making up some utterly unremarkable thing that Mark Twain was doing at that spot.

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