John Shearer: Learning About Highway Pioneer Judge M.M. Allison Through Family Scrapbook – And A Secluded Marker

Wednesday, September 8, 2021 - by John Shearer

When a casual student of local history thinks of the movers and shakers of early 1900s Chattanooga, such names as Lupton, Patten and Probasco come to mind, or maybe County Judge Will Cummings or millionaire developer C.E. James.


But have you ever heard of Judge M.M. Allison? He literally helped pave a better path forward for Chattanoogans and all people east of the Mississippi River through his painstaking and determined leadership efforts of the Dixie Highway Association.


It was an organization that tried to find or have constructed a connected link of paved highways running eventually from Canada all the way south through Florida in the 1910s and ‘20s when better roads were needed to keep pace with the growing popularity of the automobile. 


And Judge Allison’s efforts as an obviously altruistic public servant, who no doubt had skills of diplomacy, had come after he had distinguished himself as a Circuit Court judge and was enjoying a successful law practice. 


But still, he has not had a name as lasting in Chattanooga circles as some, even though he has several distinguished descendants still in Chattanooga, including great-grandson Neil Thomas, who himself also served as a Circuit Court judge here.


I had come across Judge Allison’s name before while researching the history of Riverview out of personal interest and learning that he was one of the early residents of that upscale North Chattanooga neighborhood.

But I knew little else about him.


However, a recent story by contributor Jerry Summers about some Chattanoogans involved in the Dixie Highway Association prompted an email by another one of Judge Allison’s great-grandchildren, Kate “Katie” O’Dell Bailey.


Ms. Bailey, who has enjoyed a noted local tennis career and works as a senior financial adviser and vice president with Merrill Lynch in downtown Chattanooga, mentioned that she had an old family scrapbook with several clippings about Judge Allison, who went by Mike.


I went by one day recently and picked up from her some large, scrapbook-sized copies of the articles that had been made and that mentioned aspects about his family and career, including his work with the Dixie Highway Association. 


Ms. Bailey assumes the scrapbook had belonged to her great-grandmother, Judge Allison’s wife. 


Between those and some additional newspaper articles on file at the Chattanooga Public Library’s local history section, I was able to gain a better glimpse into his life.


Born in Dade County, Ga., just weeks after the Civil War ended, he went to school there before graduating from a college in Huntington in West Tennessee.


He then began practicing law and working in government in Marion County. While there he met Augusta Downing, the daughter of an industrialist, and they were married in 1896. One of her ancestors had been the man for whom Downing Street in London, home of the prime minister, was named. 


Her father had come to Chattanooga to work with U.S. Pipe and Foundry before eventually starting a foundry works in South Pittsburg and helping lay out that city.


The Allisons’ five children who lived to adulthood included Mrs. Neil (Mary Bertha Allison) Thomas (the grandmother of former Judge Neil Thomas), Mrs. Marshall (Augusta Allison) Lasley (the grandmother of Katie O’Dell Bailey), Mrs. John A. (Catherine) Patten Jr., Mrs. Edward (Evelyn Allison) South, and a son, M.M. Allison Jr. 


The latter, a graduate of McCallie School and Dartmouth, was already practicing law in Chattanooga and was in his early 30s when he began serving in the military during World War II. He was killed in November 1944 in the march to liberate Allies across France after D-Day.  


Augusta and Evelyn were Girls Preparatory School May queens in 1923 and 1928, respectively, a prestigious honor given only to girls possessing such high traits as character and inner beauty. Those two would also outlive the other family members, with longtime Chattanoogan Augusta dying in 1978 and Evelyn, who spent her later in years in New Jersey, in 1981. 


Mary Bertha Allison Thomas died at a young age in 1926, while Catherine Allison Patten died in 1953.


As Mr. Allison’s legal career began expanding while he and his wife began raising these children, he was elected as the Circuit Court judge in 1902 at the age of only 27 following some contentious convention voting. One of those also interested in the judgeship was Jesse Littleton, who would go on to serve as mayor of Chattanooga during World War I. 


After Judge Allison’s election, the family moved to Chattanooga and eventually erected a nice home at what is now 1661 Hillcrest Road in Riverview, just above Riverview Road and No. 2 green at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. 


The home featured a large lower hall that was used for everything from Riverview community meetings to a 1920 fall social event that drew 100, including future Congressman Joe E. Brown and baritone Oscar Seagle, according to a scrapbook article. 


The home was also used for the weddings of multiple children, including those of Augusta and Catherine. 


The family was actively involved with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.


In early 1911, Mr. Allison resigned as judge, citing the need to earn more money due to his growing financial demands, so he stepped down. 


However, he soon found other ways to serve Chattanooga outside of his personal work interests. After a fire destroyed the old Hamilton County Courthouse in 1910, he served as chairman of the building committee for the new courthouse. 


It was the current one that opened on Nov. 22, 1913 – 50 years to the day before the unfortunate assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- and was praised for its handsome architectural design by Chattanoogan R.H. Hunt and for its quality construction.


As Mr. Summers chronicled, Judge Allison in 1915 was one of the founders of the Dixie Highway Association, whose goal was in part to get Tennessee to have more paved roads and not rely on muddy passageways. 


After Mr. James resigned as president over a dispute about the highway’s route after he was over-ruled by other members of the association six months after its formation, Judge Allison apparently worked tirelessly for the effort in his new role as leader. Articles from the scrapbook say that he wanted to keep resigning, but he would continue to be elected to serve another year into the late 1920s, when the association was discontinued after the roads had been completed.


In automobile lingo, he was the driver of this project.


Judge Allison was apparently also a natural leader and knew how to get along well with people. He had also done some legal work over the years with railroad companies, and that might have given him good insight into transportation issues.


As the north-south Dixie Highway was planned and constructed, it split in places and would have two sections, perhaps to appease those in the various cities wanting the highway to run through their communities.


In Southeast Tennessee, the eastern part of the Dixie Highway ran from Dayton through Sale Creek, Soddy-Daisy and Red Bank into Chattanooga over what is now State Route 29 and U.S. Highway 27. It is the part now known as Dayton Boulevard and Dayton Pike, not the much newer Corridor J that also now uses those highway numbers.


The western part initially ran on State Route 27 from Whitwell over the mountain through Suck Creek Road, although the official alternate route later approved came from Jasper to Chattanooga on U.S. Highway 41.


South from Chattanooga into Georgia, the Dixie Highway also had two routes – to Rome on what became U.S. 27 and to Dalton on the future U.S. 41. The two roads would meet back up in Cartersville, and the Dixie Highway would continue south.


Somewhat ironically, the obituary of Judge Allison’s wife in 1942 gave more interesting information into his involvement with the Dixie Highway Association than the writeup regarding his own death in 1930 at age 65 and his burial at Forest Hills Cemetery. 


The obituary of this woman who was a pioneering female college student by attending what became UT-Chattanooga during its early days wrote, “Mrs. Allison frequently accompanied her husband on his many tours over the route, and she actually saw much of this highway connecting Chicago and the deep South developed from nothing more than an engineer’s blueprint to a paved boulevard.”


The term Dixie Highway is not really used in the Chattanooga area as much as old highway names like Lee Highway and Taft Highway, although it is apparently still used in some areas of the country. I can remember being in Louisville, Ky., way back in college in the early 1980s and was getting directions south, and the person said to take the Dixie Highway.


Of course, the word “Dixie” in recent years has developed more of a negative connotation in general terms as America comes to grips with its imperfect history, but the highway had no connections to that, as it was focused more on the future instead of the past. It appears to have been used mainly for geographic reasons.


One lasting memorial to Judge Allison and the highway, although in a very inconspicuous way as far as the immediate Chattanooga area is concerned, is a granite highway marker on Suck Creek Mountain in Marion County. He had been apparently surprised at the April 25, 1924, event attended by 100 people, including Read House proprietor Sam Read and several prominent Chattanooga ministers.


The marker was placed there because that was considered the highest point in elevation on the Dixie Highway route. After a newer alternative route was made through Jasper on what became U.S. 41, talk had surfaced of moving the marker to another area where it would be seen better, but this never occurred. Several decades ago, the local automobile association announced plans to help look after the site along with highway officials.


I decided to visit the marker on Tuesday afternoon with my father, Dr. C. Wayne Shearer. It is located on state Highway 27 as one goes alongside Suck Creek Road past the cement materials plant and quarry, then alongside the Tennessee River and up the mountain.


It is located about a 10-minute drive up the tall ridge on the right in a very conspicuous spot. 


A small park that features a few trees is carved out going down the hill below the marker. 


It features lines that look like black paint going down it below the inscription, but an older photo possessed by the Chattanooga Public Library shows similar lines on it. 


What is for sure is that high on this mountain stands a stone tribute to this man who stood on his own summit in terms of public service and who understood the future of automobile travel.


He also helped make Chattanooga a highway hub, and aided the city’s commerce and tourism along the way. 


* * * * *

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