The price of good roads

The Greene County board of supervisors is now crafting the county’s budget for fiscal year 2019-20, which begins July 1. The largest chunk of the budget every year is the secondary road department. 

Eighty-five percent of its revenue comes from state Road Use Tax funds.

Today’s multimillion county road operation is a far cry from what it was 100 years ago, in the early years of the 20th century.

One of the prime reasons most of Iowa’s counties, like Greene, are 24 miles long on each side is that residents who lived in a county’s corner could hitch up their horse and buggy, clip-clop into the county seat, shop and conduct their courthouse business, and return home in a single day. 

It was a long day, but doable. 

Most farm families who lived more than 10 miles from Jefferson would make the trip only a few times a year. Sometimes they drove the horse-powered rig into the nearest town, caught the train into Jefferson, then returned in the late afternoon by train to retrieve their horse and buggy and drive back to the farm.

Prior to the arrival of motor vehicles, most people in towns walked when they went downtown or to someone else’s home, rather than hitching up their own horse or renting one from a livery stable. 

Brother Tom Morain’s historical analysis of early Greene County, “Prairie Grass Roots,” describes the early days of the automobile and the status of roads in the county. By 1905, he writes, there were five licensed autos (and two motorcycles) in Jefferson. There may have been a few more, because not all cars at that time sported licenses.

Tom’s book lists a number of factors that slowed the growth of the county’s early population of automobiles. 

One was their questionable dependability — in the early years, cars tended to break down frequently. Another was that they were thought to be impractical compared to the good old horse and buggy. 

A third reason was their cost. Auto purchase prices after the turn of the century could go as high as $6,000. 

Compare that to the average cost of an acre of farmland in Greene County in 1900, which was $36. 

Which would most rural residents buy, a 160-acre farm or a $6,000 car?

Several makes of vehicles could be bought new for under $1,000, including a Ford, an Oldsmobile and a Cadillac. But that was still a lot for most Greene County families, whether town or country. 

The Model-T Ford changed the picture, in Greene County and nationwide. 

By 1915, a standardized Model-T rolled off the Ford assembly line every 49 seconds. Standardization significantly dropped the price and thereby boosted sales. 

In 1909, a new Model-T cost $950, but the price dropped steadily. By 1926, a Model-T cost only about a third of what it had in 1913.

As cars became cheaper, of course, their numbers increased. 

From the five cars officially counted in the county in 1905, the tally grew sharply. By 1914, there were 278 car owners in Greene County. By 1920, there was one auto for every five Greene County residents. 

Farmers made up a major share of the car-owning segment, since they could now get to town reliably, at a reasonable cost, and much faster. 

The novelty of cars’ arrival in the county was not without its problems. 

Tom writes that our great-grandfather, James Dillavou, drove his horse and buggy into town one day from the farm near Horseshoe Bend north of Scranton with intent to buy a car. He planned to drive it back home and surprise our great-grandmother.

He did. 

When she heard it coming up the lane, she ran out into the yard to see it. Great-grandpa didn’t know exactly how to stop it, and yelled at her to get out of the way. But she stood there staring, and he hit her. He was going slowly, and she wasn’t hurt, but the surprise was greater than he had anticipated.

An additional factor that initially slowed the growth of auto numbers in rural Iowa was the deplorable condition of county roads, and that fact makes relevant a discussion of secondary road budgets. 

Springtime brought thaws and heavy rains, turning rural roads in those days into sloughs. 

Originally in Iowa, the cost of county road construction and maintenance was borne entirely by rural property taxes. Farmers paid the road tax, but could work out their assessment by hauling gravel or dragging a stretch of road. 

In 1894, the Iowa Legislature required each county to create a county road fund, and shortly after the arrival of the 20th century, the state created a state highway commission.

And that agency soon officially recognized what was generally known in western Iowa: Greene County owned a strong reputation for its good roads. 

In 1904, for instance, Greene became one of the first counties in the state to get rural mail delivery because its good road conditions made that possible. (Before that, farmers would generally go into town two or three times a week to pick up mail at the post office.)

In 1907, the State Highway Commission cited Greene as THE leading county in the state for good roads, based on its miles of graveled roadway and the number of cement bridges. 

Large deposits of gravel left in the county by receding glaciers, primarily in the Raccoon River valley and the Spring Lake quarry, provided many tons of cheap gravel. That asset was loaded into wagons a shovelful at a time for road construction and maintenance.

J.W. Holden, a Scranton farmer and longtime Greene County supervisor, was a recognized expert on road maintenance. He was elected president of the Association of State Supervisors, and in 1913, was appointed to the three-man State Highway Commission.

In May 1910, the Iowa Transcontinental Road Association, later the Lincoln Highway Association, was organized, with Jefferson banker Henry Haag as president. He died later that year, but his leadership helped place Greene County on the nationwide coast-to-coast route.

And 100 years ago, in 1919, an Army convoy traveled across the nation on the Lincoln Highway, camping overnight in July at the county fairgrounds in Jefferson. 

Three days after the convoy left Jefferson, the voters of the county by a three-to-one vote approved paving the road, and Greene County became the first in the state to pave the Lincoln Highway from county line to county line. 

Farmers whose land lay within 1½ miles of the route were assessed 25 percent of the paving cost.

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Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161