Interstate 20 construction

Equipment sits in the median of interstate 20 in 1977, then still under construction near the Alabama-Georgia state line in Cleburne County.

Who better than Leon Smith to say if the only reason the federal government bestowed Oxford with Interstate 20 is because haughty Anniston didn’t want it?

The Star asked the erstwhile Oxford mayor that a few years before he died. Was Calhoun County’s longstanding legend about I-20 — a legend that plays perfectly with the cities’ sibling rivalry — true?

Smith said he had a “pretty credible source” who confirmed it.

Anniston was indeed haughty.

“They thought hobos and hitchhikers would come in and out of town,” he said. “Maybe Oxford made a mistake, but in the next 100 years, maybe someone else made the mistake.” 

That settles it. Or not.

“I’ve heard those rumors all of my life,” former Anniston Mayor Gene Stedham said while in office. “I don’t think anyone ever tried to keep it out of Anniston.”

But what about Anniston’s current mayor? 

Does he believe the rumor?

“I absolutely believe that, I do,” Jack Draper said. “I think because of Anniston’s prominence (at the time), I do believe it would have made sense for the road to come through Anniston.”

But what about the engineers who built I-20? 

What do they say?

“We looked at the terrain, for the best place to build a road,” George Ray, the project engineer of the interstate portion between Snow Creek and U.S. 431, told The Star years ago. “We wanted the easiest, least expensive route to build a road. We used a lot of aerial photographs.”

And longtime Oxford residents? Do they agree?

“I’ve heard that rumor, but I tend to sort of agree that it was a terrain deal,” said Oxford Councilman Mike Henderson, who as a child rode bikes and played on the dirt roadbed before I-20 was completed. “I don’t think it was ever going through Anniston.”

So we’re stuck, wheels in mud, no closer today to definitively fact-checking this quirky and entirely believable story than we’ve ever been, and that fascinates me. We may never know the truth.

To understand why it’s believable, you must understand Anniston and Oxford. Outsiders won’t get it. But we do. 

Back in the day, Anniston was haughty, a boastful and ego-filled place. It was the county’s largest city, its financial, legal, industrial and medical center. It had the county’s Army post and the county’s Army depot. Everything except higher education ran through Anniston.

Oxford was — I’m being kind here — the little brother down along U.S. 78.

That’s why I can absolutely believe Smith’s story, that an Anniston contingent drove to Montgomery and convinced federal highway department officials to build I-20 a few miles to the south.

That is so 1950s-era Anniston, if true.

Hobos and hitchhikers and other people, if you get my drift.

“Who in their right mind would actually attempt to keep this from coming through here?” Draper asked me when we talked about this. But he’s the mayor now, not then. We know today that I-20 has transformed Oxford from “a little town,” as Henderson describes the Oxford of his childhood, to an undeniable Alabama success story. No one would torch that opportunity.

Plus, Draper said, “You have to commend Oxford and its leadership and its historical leadership for capitalizing on the interstate.”

But that wasn’t totally clear in the 1950s when the U.S. Department of Transportation was building what became the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways after World War II. The U.S. Department of Transportation sought route guidelines from state highway agencies; the Department of Defense reviewed them; routes parallel to existing highways — think: U.S. 78 — were preferred.

One thing is certain: The omnipotent Smith, first elected as Oxford’s mayor in 1984, had nothing to do with I-20’s location, though Henderson admits that “Leon had a lot of connections with the highway department” and former Gov. George Wallace.

None of this explains why this story — Is it a myth? A fact? A lie? — still has legs. People believe it. Lots of people, in fact. Perception, meet reality. Even Draper admits he believes it because no one’s ever proven to him that it isn’t true. 

I don’t know what to believe, or whom.

“I think it goes back to some of that Anniston-Oxford rivalry,” Henderson said. “You know, Oxford’s success has been driven pretty much by the interstate. The fact that Anniston didn’t get it, it’s sort of like (Anniston said), ‘We didn’t want it anyway.’

“They were probably pretty mad that we have been pretty successful with it. It’s kind of like kids arguing.”

That’s the truth.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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