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Highway Beautification


In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced the America the Beautiful initiative. The cornerstone of this program was the Highway Beautification Act. Among other things, the act called for the removal of billboards from Federal highways. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Act, which was not without controversy. Republicans opposed the bill and offered amendment after amendment. The long process went into the wee hours of the morning. It was finally signed at 1 am. President Johnson signed the bill, saying, “Beauty belongs to all the people.” He gave the first pen to Lady Bird, along with a kiss on her cheek.

But President Johnson was not the first to remove billboards from highways. Elected in 1925, North Dakota Governor A.G. Sorlie was backed by the Non-Partisan League. The NPL favored farm and rural interests, and opposed big business. With Sorlie’s election, the NPL returned to power in Bismarck. On this date in 1925, the Grand Forks Herald announced that Sorlie had directed the state Highway Department to remove billboards and advertising signs along the state highways. Sorlie noted that the last legislature had granted the authority to do so to the Highway Department.

Chief Engineer of the department, W.G. Black, would instruct all district engineers and road maintenance inspectors to notify billboard owners of the change. The owners would be given ten days in which to take down their signs. If they failed to do so, the Highway Department would remove the signs and bill the owners for the expense. The Governor asked for the cooperation of drivers to help rid the state of what he called “this dangerous road nuisance.” Travelers were urged to call the Highway Department and report the location of billboards.

Sorlie told the newspaper that he had “several motives” for taking down the billboards, but he did not elaborate. This led to speculation about what was behind the move. Sorlie might have been addressing a report that said billboards caused accidents because they distracted drivers. He might have wanted to open up the beautiful North Dakota landscapes for tourists to view as they drove. There were even suggestions that it was simply an anti-business move by the NPL. But whatever the reason, Governor Sorlie got the jump on President Johnson by forty years.

These days, commercial outdoor advertising must be located on private property that’s zoned for commercial or industrial use. Permit required.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Grand Forks Herald. “Sorlie Wants Signs Removed From All State Highways.” 7 July, 1925.

State Historical Society of North Dakota. Arthur G. Sorlie. "http://www.history.nd.gov/exhibits/governors/governors14.html" http://www.history.nd.gov/exhibits/governors/governors14.html Accessed 27 May, 2016.

National Governors Association. "http://www.nga.org/cms/home/governors/past-governors-bios/page_north_dakota/col2-content/main-content-list/title_sorlie_arthur.default.html" http://www.nga.org/cms/home/governors/past-governors-bios/page_north_dakota/col2-content/main-content-list/title_sorlie_arthur.default.html Accessed 5 May, 2016.