Less than a mile from the southern end of Alabama Highway 21 in Atmore, within sight of the Florida state line, you can buy a car at Johnson Ford.

If you’re so inclined, you can point that car north on 21 and drive all the way to the highway’s northern end in Piedmont, where you can buy a new set of tires at Masters’ OK Tire, at the intersection with Alabama 9.

It might not be enough highway to wear away much tread, but Alabama 21’s 279.3 miles make it one of the state’s longest state-signed routes. Along the way travelers can take in a heavy load of history stretching back decades, centuries and eons into the past — civil rights marchers in 1965 carried their message from Selma to Montgomery on part of the path, Andrew Jackson’s army defeated a force of Creeks near Talladega in 1813, and a meteor slammed into the earth about 85 million years ago near what is now Wetumpka, just east of the highway. Today, Alabama 21 connects tiny towns and small cities, and links the state’s capital to constituents north and south.

For most drivers, though, 21 is likely a route to nearby destinations. Its slower speed limits through two-lane stretches, its turns through stoplight-heavy downtowns big and small make it an inefficient way to reach any far-off point. But those impediments are also a link to the highway’s pre-history, and clues to how dozens of local byways came to share a single name.

In a sense, it is Alabama’s Main Street, passing prisons and colleges, the state capital and casinos, and countless coffee shops, high schools, factories and homes.

Paving the way

Before there was an Alabama 21, the paths that constitute it existed largely as a series of local roads — the way to get from Uriah to Monroeville, from Wetumpka to Rockford, Jacksonville to Anniston, or simply from one side of town to the other. Many of those routes had existed since Alabamians did their traveling on foot or by horse. But by 1914, the rapid rise of the automobile had made the need for good roads apparent.

“Most of the new construction in those early days was being done at the local level,” said Tony Harris, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation. His agency’s predecessor, the fledgling Alabama Highway Commission, in the early years of the 20th century was mainly advising county governments on the best construction practices, materials and standards.

A 1914 map produced by the Alabama Highway Department and held today by the state Department of Archives and History shows a network of black lines across the state resembling the cracks in a shattered mirror — with no names or numbers for any of the routes. That would change by 1925, when a similar map showed numbers beside the lines between different cities. Some paths traversed the entire state, but many numbers applied only to short trips between nearby towns. The route between Anniston and Piedmont, for instance, was marked “46.” Continuing south, the path became “1” to Talladega and Sylacauga, and “39” to the Coosa County town of Rockford.

Why numbers? At first, most roads had names, according to Joe Weber, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Alabama who specializes in transport geography. Highways being built across the country as part of a “good roads” movement had been dubbed the Lincoln Highway, Dixie Highway and Bankhead Highway. And local paths long had names that meant something to the people who used them: the towns they led to or people who lived along them.

“They just became a mess,” Weber said of the names. “There were so many names applied willy-nilly.”

Consistency became important as cars allowed people to travel farther and faster. Wisconsin began numbering its highways in 1916, and the practice was adopted nationally in 1926, Weber said. By 1928, Alabama highway maps show the numbers were being revised so that many formerly short-run, local roads shared the same designation over long distances. That’s when, for the first time, the state seems to have given the highway from Piedmont to Atmore a single name: State Highway 11.

Short and long hauls

By 1957, according to more maps held in the state archives, some of the numbers had changed again, and Alabama 11 had become Alabama 21. Many highways had their numbers changed to avoid confusion with longer-distance U.S. highways using the same numbers, Harris said. That’s what happened to the Piedmont-to-Atmore highway, so travelers wouldn’t get lost looking for U.S. 11, which passes through Gadsden on its way between Birmingham and Chattanooga.

So, why mark the way from Piedmont south to Montgomery, then on down to Atmore with the same number? Who knows?

“I’m sure there was a reason,” Weber said, “but I’m not sure it could be reconstructed from a map.”

Just because the signs along all those miles show Alabama 21 to be a single road doesn’t mean many people actually think of it that way. Even the state Transportation Department doesn’t think of it as a single highway, Harris said.

Alabama 21’s long path crosses through four different territories overseen by different engineers under ALDOT’s bureaucratic structure. Each of those engineers only ever thinks about maintaining the portion of Alabama 21 within the borders of his own division, as with a $1.2 million project that was awarded to a contractor in June to widen, resurface and re-stripe 5.1 miles of the highway just north of Oak Hill in Wilcox County.

“It’s just an identifier to us,” Harris said of the number “21” on the signs.

Piedmont Mayor Bill Baker would like to see more work on his town’s stretch of the road. Mention Alabama 21, and he makes the argument  Piedmont residents have made for years: the last 5 miles of the road from Jacksonville to Piedmont should be widened to four lanes.

“We have asked and asked and asked,” state leaders and the Department of Transportation to undertake the project, Baker said. But other projects always seem to be a higher priority, he said. (Harris, with ALDOT, said the agency keeps a list of two-lane roads for widening, prioritized by the amount of traffic they carry. Alabama 21’s approach to Piedmont hasn’t come near enough to the top of that list to be widened, he said.)

Baker drove Alabama 21 from Piedmont to Anniston to his job with the Calhoun County Department of Human Resources, “every workday of my life for 31 years,” he said. For many residents of his town, it’s the way to work in the larger towns to the south, or to shop, or to school at Jacksonville State University. Widening the highway would make those commutes easier, he said, and might help to entice new industry to town to replace the textile jobs that have vanished over the years.

Like Baker, Atmore Mayor Jim Staff mostly just thinks about the parts of Alabama 21 that matter to him — in his town, it’s called Main Street. Before a phone call Thursday, he said he’d never considered that there was a town something like his at the other end of the line.

“I never thought about it,” he said.

Still, after some conversation, at least one link between Atmore and points north on 21 occurred to him. An old friend, Ray Moore, had moved to Atmore from Anniston to take a job at Monsanto’s plant in Pensacola. Moore’s brother was Robert “Buddy” Moore, the longtime golf pro at Anniston’s Municipal Golf Course, “The Hill.”

Ray and his wife Elouise lived in a home on Main Street, Staff said, just a few hundred miles down the highway from the town where he grew up.

Staff takes the interstate for business trips to Gadsden; it’s just faster. But he’s entertained thoughts of an impromptu road trip with his wife down Alabama’s back roads. That might just include Alabama 21 someday.

“I would think that would be a pretty drive,” he said.

Managing Editor Ben Cunningham: 256-235-3541. On Twitter @Cunningham_Star.

Managing Editor of The Anniston Star