John Malang. [Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, Missouri and Missourians: Land of Contrasts and People of Achievements, 1943]
These minutes from the April 4, 1916, Joplin Special Road District commission show when John Malang stepped down as president of the district’s board to become its general manager. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Joplin, Missouri Special Road District Minute Book (C0646)]
An early concrete road in Jasper County, Missouri, one of many projects that Malang oversaw during his tenure on the Joplin Special Road District Commission. [Third Biennial Report of the State Highway Commission, 1922]
Malang Highway. [Joplin Globe, September 30, 1928]

John Malang, “The Father of Missouri Roads,” was born on September 9, 1866 or 1867. Sources provide conflicting information as to his birthplace, birthdate, and even his middle initial; his death certificate states Malang was born in Nashville, Tennessee, while the US Census variously reports his place of birth as both Tennessee and Indiana. What is indisputable, however, is Malang’s role in transforming Missouri’s roadways from muddy thoroughfares maintained by local citizens to modern highways funded by local, state, and federal government. During the early twentieth century, no one did more than John Malang to “Lift Missouri Out of the Mud,” which was the title of an address he delivered before the 1915 Old Trails Road Association in Columbia. The phrase famously became the rallying cry of Good Roads advocates across the Show-Me State. 

Malang’s father, Joseph, a shoemaker, immigrated to America from Württemberg, Germany. Joseph married Letitia Malone, a native of Ireland, on April 20, 1861, in Davidson County, Tennessee. By 1870 the couple had moved to Oxford, Benton County, Indiana, with their four children: Mary, Maggie, John, and Francis. In 1877 the family moved to southwest Missouri. John Malang grew up in the Tanyard Hollow community three miles south of Joplin on the southern edge of Jasper County. Letitia Malang, reportedly a well-educated woman, educated her children at home. John also attended Joplin public schools for two terms, but it was his mother who gave him “his real education.” 

During the late nineteenth century, Jasper County was the heart of the Tri-State Lead and Zinc Mining District. When he was fifteen, Malang began working in the mines. Over time he rose to become a mine superintendent and then a mine operator. As Malang established himself professionally in the local community, he married Anna Sigman in Joplin on October 26, 1886. The couple had four children: Edward, Benjamin, Joseph Raymond, and John. Tragedy struck the Malang family in 1898 when six-year-old Joseph Raymond accidentally drowned.

A Republican, Malang ran for the position of county recorder in 1898. After an electoral tie with Democrat Frederick W. Steadley, a fierce legal battle ensued. The Kansas City Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in Steadley’s favor. Malang, undaunted, remained politically active. The death of Joplin businessman Thomas Connor in 1907 unexpectedly sent Malang’s life on a new trajectory. Shortly before he died, Connor was elected to the Missouri state senate, but he never filled his seat due to ill health. After Connor’s death, a special election was called. John Malang, the Republican nominee to replace Connor, won. When his term expired, Malang told a reporter he would not run for reelection. “It’s back to the daffodils, the lowing herds, the cackle of the thrifty hen and the peaceful majesty of the farm for me,” he quipped. Although he served only one term as a state senator, it provided “the fighting miner” with invaluable legislative experience. 

When exactly John Malang first became interested in roads is unknown, but newspaper accounts demonstrate he was a devout disciple of the Good Roads Movement. The businessmen and tourism boosters who were part of the movement in southwest Missouri recognized that they would financially benefit from a modern roadway system and, in the absence of public funding, knew they had no viable alternative but to donate their own time and money to the cause. The Good Roads Movement, however, transcended state borders. The United States, not just Missouri, was plagued by inadequate road infrastructure. The nationwide movement, which began in the late nineteenth century, gained momentum as the early twentieth century progressed. Although met with skepticism and concerns about how road projects would be financed, Good Roads advocates soldiered on, forming organizations and forging alliances with like-minded groups such as automobile associations and tourism boosters to accomplish their mutual goals. One such group was the Western Missouri Good Roads Association. Established in 1911 in Jasper County with the purpose of establishing a rock road from Kansas City to Joplin to Neosho to Arkansas, the group’s motto was “Do It Now.” 

By 1912 the group, headquartered in Joplin, was headed by banker Howard C. Murphy. Malang served as the organization’s secretary. Working together, he and Murphy aggressively advocated good roads across the region. Malang’s speaking skills and common touch were invaluable at converting skeptics to the Good Roads movement. At an early Western Missouri Good Roads Association meeting at McElhany, a rural community in Newton County, Malang mounted a cracker box, “yanked off his collar, rolled up his sleeves,” and told the audience “what the good roads association proposed to do, with their help.” By the time he concluded his speech, farmers in attendance had contributed $1,600 to the road fund.

In 1914 the Neosho Times announced that Joplin and Arkansas would soon be connected by a new road. Malang and Murphy’s enthusiasm for roads had spread across the region; the Times reported, “Rumors were current at one time that every man living in Anderson who was able to shoulder a pick and shovel was helping build the highway. It was the same way at Goodman and Wade and McElhany, three other towns which the road passes.” In September 1915, as a stretch of road from Neosho to Noel was nearing completion under the supervision of the Western Missouri Good Roads Association, the Joplin Globe noted that Malang and Murphy deserved much of the credit for raising road funds. Malang became known statewide for his Good Roads activism, but his fame rapidly increased after he joined the Joplin Special Road District Commission. 

Although many sources state that John Malang joined the commission in 1914, Jasper County newspapers indicate it was not until July 1915 that he was selected to fill a vacancy created when businessman Charles Schifferdecker resigned. Malang joined his longtime collaborator Howard C. Murphy and Joplin banker Albert P. Clark. Shortly after his appointment to the commission, he delivered an address, “Lift Missouri Out of the Mud,” at an Old Trails Road Association of Missouri meeting held in Columbia. The phrase became the statewide rallying cry of those in favor of modernizing Missouri’s roadways.

Joplin’s status as the nation’s leading lead and zinc producer and a regional trade center prompted the need for reliable road and rail networks. Even as a fledgling mining town, Joplin was noted for its good-quality streets, and its efforts to raise public funding for road construction dated back to 1886. The Joplin Special Road District Commission on which Malang served, however, originated from the Hudson Law of 1895. The law provided that “any district in Missouri having within it a city of the second or third class, eight miles square, may by vote of the people a special road district to be managed by three commissioners appointed by the council and the county judges, and to serve without pay.” The commissioners controlled public roads in their district and were authorized to build roads up to fifteen miles outside of it. Funding for the new district came from saloon licensing fees, a poll tax, and private donations. Road crews used chat, leftover tailings from lead and zinc mines, for road projects. The district’s success was aided by the involvement and support of many of Joplin’s most influential business and civic leaders. Projects undertaken during this period included the extension of Joplin’s Thirteenth Street west to Central City, the extension of North Main Street, and the construction of Reding’s Mill Road. One of the most noteworthy projects during Malang’s tenure occurred in 1918 when the first concrete highway in Jasper County was completed.

As an article in the January 1919 issue of Concrete Highway Magazine explained, the use of chat in Jasper County roads was cost-efficient, but as local automobile traffic increased, maintenance costs rose as well. In search of a more durable road surface, Joplin Special Road District commissioners decided to build an eighteen-foot-wide concrete highway that began in Webb City and then headed west through Joplin before entering Galena and Baxter Springs, Kansas, and terminating in the mining fields at Miami, Oklahoma. The federal government paid 25 percent of the project’s cost, the state of Missouri 25 percent, and the Joplin Special Road District 50 percent, which was alleviated by $100,000 raised by Joplin residents. When asked if the project, known as Federal Aid Project No. 2, would pay, Malang retorted, “Pay? Road building is the only investment which will pay back the money invested the first year.” Three months after the first concrete was poured, a two-mile stretch of road opened to traffic. Concrete, trade periodical Earth Mover observed, “promises to be all that the committee had expected.” 

The Joplin Special Road District’s projects dovetailed with the new Missouri State Highway Department, formed in 1913. While the State Highway Department initially did not have much influence, that changed as new legislation and local, state, and federal funding expanded opportunities for road development in Missouri. The Hawes Road Law of 1917, in addition to spurring a flurry of road construction, established the bipartisan Missouri State Highway Board. Two years later, the McCullough-Morgan Act, which amended the Hawes Law and was reportedly written by Malang, created the position of state highway superintendent to manage the department’s operations and serve as secretary to the four-member state highway board. In 1919 Governor Frederick Gardner appointed Malang as the first state superintendent of highways. By 1920 it was clear that inadequate state revenue threatened plans envisioned under the Hawes Law and Morgan-McCullough Act. Malang, who shaped much of Missouri’s roads legislation, spent much of his time publicly advocating for a $60 million state road bond issue that promised to “Lift Missouri Out of the Mud.” He issued informational bulletins and gave speeches around the state to sway voters. Missourians in the city of St. Louis and sixty-one of the state’s 114 counties approved the bond issue at the polls. 

In January 1921 John Malang resigned as highway superintendent; it was widely believed that ill health led to his resignation. He may also have tired of the grind of state politics and interference of special-interest groups. Shortly before he resigned, Malang prepared a plan to spend funds from the $60 million bond issue on several proposed highway projects. He favored a series of paved primary roads supplemented by a secondary system of hard-surface highways. Malang asked Missourians to see the highways as a state, rather than local, matter and warned of the danger of wasting money on “a checkerboard system of roads.” Funding, he believed, should be directed by the state, not individual counties, because “prolonged delays and endless bickering over routes” would squander precious financial resources. Among his key proposals was a highway that would span the state from its northeastern edge with Iowa to Arkansas, a St. Louis–Jefferson City–Kansas City route, and a highway along the state’s western border that would terminate in Arkansas and Iowa. He also insisted on the creation of a state cement plant to keep cement suppliers “honest.” Despite his status as one of the state’s preeminent roadbuilders, not everyone agreed with his proposals. For example, the four-thousand-member Pershing Way Club of Eminence opposed Malang’s plan because it did not incorporate their proposed route from Winnipeg, Canada, to New Orleans, Louisiana.

Following his resignation, Malang returned to Jasper County and resumed his duties with the Joplin Special Road District. But in the face of fierce fighting between urban and rural political factions over the future of the state’s highway system, he soon returned to Jefferson City. In an appearance before the Roads and Highways Committee in the Missouri House of Representatives in July 1921, Malang testified, “The only fair way to the people of St. Louis, Kansas City and other cities and to the farmers is the construction of a state system of highways and not a county system of highways.” He warned, “This body will make a great mistake if it does not decide upon a system of roads that will last longer than the bonds.” Later that summer, after a highly contentious session, the Missouri General Assembly passed the Centennial Road Law, later described in a Missouri State Highway Commission publication as “the rock-solid foundation . . . of Missouri’s modern highway system” and one of the “most important single pieces of highway legislation ever enacted by a state legislature.” Its passage signaled the final transition from “local to state control of road construction.” Although it was not Malang’s plan, the law nonetheless heralded progress. The fight for funding Missouri’s new highways, however, was not over. 

In 1928 Malang undertook a grueling statewide campaign on behalf of an amendment to the state constitution that would authorize a $75 million road bond issue. The ambitious amendment included provisions for the improvement and maintenance of existing primary and secondary state roads as well as the construction of new roads and bridges. Notably, the amendment made it “unlawful for any state official or agency to divert highway revenues to other-than-highway purposes,” making Missouri “the first state in the nation” to “protect and earmark its highway revenues.” Despite his physician’s warning that a statewide tour was too arduous—Malang suffered from heart disease and an unspecified stomach ailment—the old road builder would not hear of slowing down. On September 13, 1928, John Malang suffered a heart attack and died in his hotel room in Kansas City. At the time of his death, Malang—still manager of the Joplin Special Road District Commission—was supervising the construction of a new highway between Joplin and Seneca that employed new drainage techniques. He was also director of the Good Roads Bureau of the Automobile Club of Missouri. Tributes to Malang poured forth from all corners of the state. Fittingly, in November the amendment Malang fought for was approved by Missouri voters.

A Missouri State Highway Department history written in the 1940s noted Malang is “justly credited as being the ‘Father of the Good Roads Movement’ in Missouri.” It also observed, “His courage, his vision, good judgment and insistence upon an equitable and balanced road financing and construction program were embraced by the amendment adopted by the people in 1928. John Malang labored long and vigorously for a cause to which he literally gave his life.” Shortly after his death, more than four thousand people attended the dedication of the Malang Highway on October 5, 1928. The highway, which runs from Joplin to State Highways 16 and 37 in Monett, connected the communities of Duenweg, Fidelity, Sarcoxie, Wentworth, and Pierce City. The following year a memorial tablet dedicated to Malang was installed in the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City. Malang’s legacy is embodied in the highways still driven by Missourians that he so passionately championed during his lifetime.

Further Reading

Austin, David C., and Thomas J. Gubbels. A History of the Missouri State Highway Department. Historic Preservation Section, Design Division, Missouri Department of Transportation. 

Carthage Evening Press. 

Dickey, Harris B. “History of the Missouri Highway Department.” Manuscript, Highway Planning Survey Division, ca. 1942, Missouri Department of Transportation. 

“John M. Malang.” In Missouri: Mother of the West, ed. Walter Williams and Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, assisted by an advisory council, 3:304. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1930.

Joplin Globe. 

Joplin, Missouri Special Road District Minute Book (C0646). State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia Research Center. 

Missouri Highways: The Years Between. Jefferson City: Missouri State Highway Commission, n.d.

Traylor, Richard C. “Pulling Missouri Out of the Mud: Highway Politics, the Centennial Road Law, and the Problems of Progressive Identity.” Missouri Historical Review 98, no. 1 (October 2003): 47–68.

Western Missouri Good Roads Association Minute Book (C0648). State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia Research Center.

Published April 5, 2024; Last updated April 29, 2024

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