Pierre Frontage

Unsung American Hero

Pierre Frontage (frahn-tazh), 1905 - 1987, is a hero little known in the annals of American History despite his name being displayed on signs throughout the United States. Like his own hero, Johnny Appleseed, Pierre traveled in every state, along almost every highway, from the longest interstates to the smallest state and local freeways and expressways. As he drove he stopped in every village, town and city talking to their mayors, their city councils and their highway commissioners. To each one he asked the same questions: "Does this highway prevent travellers from stopping in your area?" "Are your residents unable to reach their own homes and your local stores easily because of the highway crossing through?" And these politicians listened to him. They built access roads running close to the highways and expressways so residents could reach local destinations easily. Of course many of these access roads were named after the politicians themselves, but hundreds of roads were named after the man who first suggested them: Frontage Road.

When Pierre was a young boy the automobile was a rarity - if one drove through his small hometown of Bern, Kansas the entire town ran out to watch and wave - and often to provide tow service to the local blacksmith with a Clydesdale more often used for farm work. As he grew older, however, autos became common, and cities and towns vied to pave roads for them to travel on. During the Depression years, Pierre moved to Kansas City and worked as a mechanic fixing every imaginable type of engine - tractors and harvesters and even barnstorming airplane engines as well as his favored automobiles.

In WWII, Pierre fought in France and Germany, surviving D-Day only to slog through mud and rain during the liberation of France and Belgium. During that time he became aware of the importance of good roads, roads (now called 'highways') which would take a supply truck or an ambulance hundreds of miles without pause for potholes, ruts or flat tires. When he returned to the States he became a vocal advocate of the need for highways crossing the United States, opening up the country to everyone with an automobile. Like the railways of the previous century he envisioned these highways linking every state, every corner, no matter how small.

Instead of returning to Kansas and his work as a mechanic, he went to Washington, DC, and took a job with the Public Roads Administration. to implement the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944. Working as a troubleshooter, he crisscrossed the United States helping with everything from purchasing land to mediating with boths sides when there were union labor problems. But as the highway network grew, Pierre realized that it wasn't an unmixed blessing.

On the road most of the time, Pierre often stayed nights in hotels in small towns near whichever freeway exit he reached in the evening. Chatting with local citizens in the restaurant or bar he heard the same complaint voiced in towns from Virginia to California:

"The highway is great if you're driving to the nearest big city, but it was built on the same land as the road we used to reach our neighbors, to get to the local stores and to go to church. Now we have to drive miles in the wrong direction, go onto the highway and drive more miles past our destination. A 10 minute trip to the store now takes 45 minutes."

Able to see the problem nationwide instead of merely locally, Pierre soon saw how to solve the problem: Build a network of local access roads parallel to the new highways. In 1952 he quit his job with the Bureau of Public Roads (the name had been changed from the PRA 3 years earlier) and became a nomad driving the length of each highway as it was opened. Taking each exit, he worked his way from town to town talking to the town leaders. Convincing them to cooperate with politicians from the adjoining towns he helped them design roads linking individual homes and stores to the highway entrances. Many of these were named for him: Frontage Road.

Pierre's family was originally French. His many-great grandfather, Raoul Frontage, came to Quebec from Lyon, France, in the mid-18th century as a fur trapper. Conscripted into the army, he acted as a scout in the French and Indian wars (1754-1760) where he acted as a scout and liaison with the Indians in the Ohio Valley. There he learned to travel down hidden deer paths parallel to the welluused trails, hiding himself and his men from British soldiers marching down the obvious path.

Remaining in the Ohio Valley after 1760, Raoul married the daughter of another trapper and became a shipper on the Ohio River. He fought against the British again in the Revolutionary War, and was killed at the Battle of Yorktown. His wife remarried and stayed in the Ohio Valley, but his two sons soon continued West, first to Missouri and a generation later to Kansas where Pierre's great grandfather settled in North East Kansas, in the area eventually incorporated as the township of Bern.