He is the only person to have starred on both the NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill football teams and maybe that feat gave O. Max Gardner the foresight as Governor of North Carolina from 1929 to 1933 to combine the state’s public universities into a single system.
But, unlike many today in the legislature and at least one current Democratic candidate for Governor, Gardner was also a “roadside reformer,” famously advocating the use of highway funds to plant trees along roadsides as a “sound business investment” even during the Great Depression.
Governor Gardner envisioned North Carolina as a “tourism state” and commissioned a report on how to beautify its roadsides and curb blight such as billboards. The state was already earning a reputation for a great system of roadbeds but for roadsides, not so much.
Back then, where roadside trees hadn’t already been ravaged by poor road construction practices, they were being desecrated and destroyed or blighted by outdoor billboards.
A statewide survey commissioned in 1930 and co-conducted by a highway engineer reported a billboard every half mile on the road between Durham, where I live now, and Raleigh; and where trees hadn’t been stripped away for nearly 350 of these monstrosities, they were cut down or obscured to reveal hundreds more signs wallpapering barns, tobacco buildings and filling stations.
Back then Old (State) Route 10, a fragment of which I now often enjoy riding my Harley Crossbones, was the first central highway through the state and known as the “Main Street of North Carolina” in the years before it was soon replaced by US 70.
Finally paved end to end, there were already more than 2,500 billboards along the 383 miles of State Route 10 from Beaufort on the coast to Asheville in the mountains or as the report notes, “one every 13 1/2 seconds” even at the 35-45 mile per hour speeds permitted in 1930.
Gateways into Charlotte and Asheville, at the time, featured an outdoor billboard every 4 1/2 seconds and 5 seconds respectively. Then as now, both the public and companies led by Standard Oil were rebelling against the exploitation and degradation of publicly-owned roadsides.
Standard Oil was sponsoring essay contests across the nation the year North Carolina roadsides were being surveyed, entitled “Scen-ic,” a pejorative word-play on the word scenic. Billboards had already become the butt of editorial cartoonists.
The essays generated ideas on how to end the erection of “objectionable advertising signs along highways” and “why signs that obscured scenic beauty should be removed.”
Many generated photographs and slogans such as “Why Sign Away Beauty,” “A Sign Removed is a Scene Improved,” “Landmarks – Not Trademarks,” and “Roadside Beauty – A Roadside Duty.”
Today, trees are once again fair game in North Carolina:
- The legislature is permitting outdoor billboard companies to clear cut nearly the length of a football field in either direction while overriding local restrictions, thanks to a bill ramrodded through by a Republican lawmaker who owns billboards and seems to have been given a free pass when it comes to ethics, helping to earn the state only a “C” for integrity.
- Co-dependent NCDOT maintenance crews, except where public outrage made them stop, have been illegally slashing the tree line along Interstates, ten feet further than policy and up to 100 feet up some hillsides, sacrificing hardwood trees that were just as large when the roads were built and using public funds to cut down redbuds and dogwoods that had been planted in the tree line at public expense. (And you wonder why some people want to shrink government?)
- NCDOT officials have also been blowing off local officials with claims the agency doesn’t recognize local zoning, local tree ordinances or local water standards.
- And finally, Lt. Governor and now candidate for Governor, Walter Dalton, long one of the largest beneficiaries of campaign contributions from billboard interests and who proudly sponsored legislation to deny local communities use of amortization as a tool to remove billboards, now writes that he “understands their value to our economy?”
Apparently he isn’t yet plugged into the 9 out of 10 North Carolinians who oppose cutting any more trees for billboards and considers trading trees for billboards good for tourism, now one of the state’s largest economic sectors.
Governor Gardner lost his first bid for Governor in 1920 to Cameron Morrison (because he stood up for voting rights for women and Blacks) but was successful when he ran again in 1928 and after he was sworn into office in 1929 was famously quoted in the Raleigh News And Observer as saying:
"They expect you to kiss the ass of everybody in North Carolina with the understanding that when you become governor, they will all have to kiss yours.
My problem has always been that I only kiss my wife, my children and my dogs and I have never let any living soul kiss my ass.”
I don’t know Lt. Governor Dalton and he seems honorable but he’s apparently no Governor O. Max Gardner.