The continued construction of an interstate that will connect Canada to Mexico has roots in Daviess County.
Several individuals from the county have spent many years advocating for the building of Interstate 69. While they’ve encountered countless obstacles, heard empty promises and faced opposition from some friends and neighbors, they continued to persevere, believing it was their duty to future generations.
Tom Baumert, David Cox and David Graham are three of those men.
Tom Baumert got involved in the advocation of I-69 in 1988, just after he took office as mayor of Washington.
“We got a group of guys together, and we passed a resolution at the council meeting supporting Evansville’s efforts,” Baumert said, explaining a group in Evansville had begun actively fighting for the road.
Baumert and others began connecting with various people, mostly by phone, advocating for the interstate.
“David Cox said, ‘Why don’t we have a big cookout sometime, and we’ll invite everyone from Madisonville, Ky., to Indianapolis,’” Baumert said. So they did. They had a cookout in Washington and the turnout was wonderful. “We had people from everywhere there,” he recalled.
It was at the cookout where several key I-69 advocates came together, actually meeting face to face, Baumert said.
He explained the interstate system was laid out in the 50s during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. Interstate 69 was in the original plans; however, it was scheduled to end in Memphis, Tenn. Construction of the interstate, which begins in Port Huron, Mich., halted in Indianapolis.
“It got broadened when they opened up the Fair Trade Laws,” he said. “People started thinking, ‘You know, this could go from Canada to Mexico.’” And that is now the plan. When entirely completed, the interstate will run from Port Huron, Mich., to Laredo, Texas.
In order to get leaders in other states on board, Baumert said David Graham took the initiative to talk to them, traveling all over the country.
“He would go to Michigan, Texas, anywhere he thought people needed to hear about it,” Baumert said of Graham.
While Baumert and others spent countless hours advocating and working toward the continued construction of I-69, they weren’t sure they’d ever see it come to fruition. That was until Mitch Daniels was elected governor.
“He’s opposite my politics, but he’s done an excellent job on I-69,” Baumert said with a smile. “He’s got me convinced it’s going to be built now.”
Baumert, now a Washington city councilman, realizes that not everyone is as eager to see the road built as he, Cox or Graham are.
“I know people who don’t want it in their neighborhood, but at the same time when they go to school or vacation, they want an interstate. They drive on it,” he said.
While there have been several debates as well as lists of pros and cons between people in this county, Baumert said it hasn’t gotten out of hand.
“We’re a little classier group of people in this area because we didn’t get to where we hated each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of pros and a lot of cons. I think once it’s built, we’ll see a real good economic jump in this area.”
In the 90s at a conference in Indianapolis, Baumert heard Judy O’Bannon, the then-governor’s wife, speak. She challenged the audience to look in the mirror every day and ask themselves this question: “What did I do today to make it better for my grandkids tomorrow?”
“She said, ‘And if you say nothing, shame on you,’” Baumert remembers. “I’ve never forgotten that. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
Baumert thought about that the entire drive home from Indiana’s capital city.
“I started looking at things a lot different after that,” he said.
Baumert said he often thinks about the pioneers who left their homes to explore new territory. They traipsed through the woods and rivers.
“They were not afraid of an adventure,” he said.
Thinking 15-20 years ahead is “our job,” he said. “We are to lay the groundwork for the future.
“In order to get these things going, you’ve got to think a long way down the road. You can’t think to the end of your nose,” Baumert said.
“There has been an awful lot of people that have worked on this project for a lot of years,” David Cox said. “Seeing it finally starting to take shape certainly makes us all feel good.”
Cox, of Odon, was the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and then became the executive director of the Daviess County Growth Council, now the Daviess County Development Corporation, when the city of Washington joined the forces pushing for the interstate.
Cox remembers when it was decided to make the interstate go from Michigan to Texas, rather than Memphis, where it was originally planned to end. The Evansville Chamber of Commerce was helpful in pursuing the advancement of the interstate, even having a full-time employee whose job was to focus on I-69, he said.
Even in the early 90s, Cox said there was some opposition.
“There’s a certain sector of people that don’t want any change. They want everything to stay the same, and that’s impossible,” Cox said.
While routes such as down U.S. 41 and I-70 have been considered, he said, “it was going to be a lot more disruptive and more expensive.”
Cox, and the other advocates for the construction of I-69, believes the economic development that will come from the interstate is important to remember. Various businesses in the community will benefit from the improved transportation provided by the new road. Businesses such as Perdue Farms, GPC and DCMetal, he said, will have more access to ship goods out and will be able to expand their business territories.
In addition to helping the current business, he thinks it will help bring other businesses to the area. He remembers a time as the executive director of the Growth Council when a prospective business representative was flying in via helicopter to see the area.
From the air, they asked where the roads were. The response, Cox said, was “You’re looking at them.”
After that, they didn’t even land. While that was before the U.S. 50 Bypass was built, Cox said, businesses need outlets to send goods.
Cox and his wife travel a lot on a motorcycle. On trips, they’ve noticed communities tend to grow toward the interstates, and he foresees that happening in this area.
“I really think that Daviess County, with its Washington and Odon exits, is an excellent place to accept some growth,” Cox said.
In the early 90s when Dr. David Reed of the Hudson Institute was in Washington doing a survey of the agricultural and economic situation in rural southern Indiana, David Graham attended a breakfast meeting with David Cox, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, and Jo Arthur, the Southern Indiana Development Commission director at the time. The main focus of the meeting was economic development.
“Dr. Reed said there’s no way you’ll get a road from Evansville to Indianapolis because nobody in Washington, D.C., really cares about southern Indiana,” Graham remembered. “The only way you’ll ever get a road is by getting the support of other states.”
Graham began traveling to various meetings across the country advocating for support of the interstate. He met with leaders from several states, talking about the need for the road.
“We had a lot of obstacles. And we had a lot of lip service from our representatives in Washington, D.C.,” Graham said. “They were for it, but they never really helped us get it going until Mitch Daniels came along.”
Locally, Graham said people like Cox, Jim Newlin and Baumert were key players in the advancement of the road.
Graham, who currently resides in The Villages, Fla., but lived most of his life in Daviess County, said he realized the vitality of the interstate to the area and that provoked his continual advocation and perseverance.
“Factories follow the roads. Jobs follow the roads. That is what we need in Washington, Ind.,” he said. “I have eight kids and not one of them works anywhere near Washington, Ind. I thought, if we want to keep our kids here, we’ve got to provide jobs.”
He believes the interstate will bring the needed growth to the community, and when it does, the county should be equipped for it.
“We’ve got to be ready for it,” Graham said. “We’ve got to have infrastructure like the fire department and the light and power and everything ready for it when it comes.”
Graham said a man originally from Indianapolis, now from Brooklyn is writing a book on the interstate. Matt Dellinger, writer, has visited Washington several times, oftentimes staying at Graham’s house. The book will be published by Scribner in July.
Three who thought ahead and worked for I-69 look back
The continued construction of an interstate that will connect Canada to Mexico has roots in Daviess County.
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