Good Roads Are Key

Winter and road construction are the two seasons of Minnesota. You can thank early motorists for that second season.

While researching the 1916 and 1917 Little Falls Daily Transcripts for information on the Jefferson Highway, I found many, many references to the quality of the roads in the county and state. Of course, motorists wanted “good” roads. This was so important that Minnesota Governor J.A.A. Burnquist declared June 20, 1916 to be “Good Roads Day” in the state. Every third Tuesday in June thereafter was to be celebrated as such.

Good roads allowed farmers to easily take their goods to market. Bicyclists enjoyed riding on good roads and improved roads were touted as a way to “[eliminate] the loneliness and isolation of rural districts and [to create] better opportunities for school attendance and social life.” (LFDT, May 27, 1916) In January 1917, the Little Falls postmaster, Simon P. Brick, threatened to cut off mail delivery to rural routes where the roads were not kept in good condition. That was certainly incentive for maintaining the roads.

So, what makes for a good road by the early motorist’s standard? No ruts, or holes, or mud, please. This was difficult to accomplish on a regular basis because most roads were dirt or gravel and easily messed up by car tires, rain and snow. As more automobiles took to the roads, many improvements were made in road design. John Loudon MacAdam invented the macadamized road, which consisted of several layers of crushed rock. Large rocks made up the base of the road, with two layers of successively smaller rocks placed over the top. The rocks were then packed down by a steam roller.

Corduroy roads appeared in several places in the county. Corduroy roads had logs laid one-after-another across the road surface. This allowed for traction over swampy or hilly roads. (Think of corduroy roads as a forerunner to the rumble strips before stop signs.) Another improvement in road design was the elevation of the road above the surrounding land surface. This allowed for better drainage and is where the term “highway” originated. (This was not a “new” invention as highways were in existence in early Rome.) Ditches along the roads gave water a place to go as it ran off the road surface. Grading roads, or giving them a slight arch in the center, also served to drain water from roads.

The high center of gravity of early cars caused them to “turn turtle” when going too fast. The ditch was no longer the motorist’s friend when he found himself in one. Shoulders were then added to roads, which allowed motorists a bit more leeway in controlling their cars and gave them a place to stop if needed.

Paving roads with concrete or asphalt was the ultimate road improvement. This was such a huge achievement that on November 9, 1922, a Paving Celebration was held in the Little Falls area when 175 miles of newly paved state highway between Belle Prairie and Faribault was opened to the public. At the time, this was the largest continuous stretch of paved road in Minnesota.

Prior to the paving of most roads, there were several ways to maintain dirt and gravel roads. Holes were filled and boulders were moved or dynamited. Ruts were dragged by road dragging machines. The first road drags were just logs dragged behind horses. Hans Gosch of Randall, Minnesota, invented an improved version of the road drag machine, which he had patented in 1921. Road graders were then used to create the arch, or crown, in the road for water drainage. Corduroy roads had to be covered with dirt or sawdust when the logs became overly exposed. Dirt roads were also sprinkled with either water or oil in order to keep the dust down and bind the road surface.

In July 1916, the Little Falls City Council discussed the purchase of an Austin-Western road oiling machine. They were concerned that it would not work on the sandy streets of Little Falls and that people would find the odor of oil offensive. After a demonstration of the machine by Austin-Western company representatives, the council decided to buy the road oiler. The Studebaker Company also submitted a bid to provide a road oiling machine, but its machine needed two people to operate it, as opposed to one needed for the Austin-Western. The council liked the cost savings of the one-operater machine. (LFDT-August 2, 1916)

An article from the May 3, 1916 issue of the Little Falls Daily Transcript sums up the road improvement craze that continues to this day. “The slogan this year seems to be good roads and more of them.”

By Mary Warner Copyright 2001, Morrison County Historical Society

An Internet article, Roads, Highways, and Ecosystems by John Stilgoe of Harvard University and copyrighted by the National Humanities Center was used as background research for this article. It can be accessed at http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/nattrans/ntuseland/essay/roads.htm. Or, try typing The Use of the Land: Perspectives on Stewardship into a search engine.

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