If you’re like me, you take road construction for granted. It seems like an necessary annoyance when you are forced to navigate around barriers and slow down. Usually you are merging into one lane, or sometimes even taking a detour. I always worry for the safety of those workers standing by while cars fly by much too close to them.
But have you wondered what road construction was like in the early automobile days? At some point in history, roads evolved from cow and horse paths to wagon ruts and then someone decided to try to level out a road for carriage and horse drawn wagons, so they wouldn’t be losing their wheels. When cars started to become popular, you needed better roads to drive upon.
This outtake from HER Side of HIStory—Finding My Foremothers’ Footprints takes place years before my grandfather, C.C. McCracken, started road equipment companies in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. This is based on an actual event that took place in Sioux Falls. It just seemed logical that he would participate, given his interests. And like any supportive housewife of 1914, Ina would have been helping to feed the workers.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
June 12, 1914
Ina had just finished putting the potatoes and ham on the table, when C.C. stumbled in, still damp and wrapped in a bathrobe. It had been a long and exhausting day for both of them, working at Sioux Falls’ first Good Roads Day. C.C. had been on the local committee to organize the volunteer labor and bring in the equipment needed. Ina had helped the wives and other women who volunteered to feed the workers as the day wore on. They had been assigned to a three-mile section of road just west of Sioux Falls which C.C. was already familiar with. The men scraped and graded, and created ditches for draining the rain away.
“I am so glad we helped the landlord put in a shower in the house last month even if we have to share it with the other boarders,” he said. “I don’t know when I have been so dirty.”
“Today was a good day to get in the dirt.” Ina tousled his wet hair. “I am surprised they didn’t turn the fire hose pumps on all of you when you were done. But just think, Good Roads Day…do you think they will do this every year?”
“It is hard to tell. Sioux Falls picked today, but I think other locations picked different days depending on what was happening in the community,” C.C. replied. “The best thing for me though was driving the new Case steam roller. I can’t even believe they let me touch such a fancy machine.”
“Well, it helped your boss from Avery told them you had experience with machinery like that,” Ina said, breaking off a piece of freshly baked bread. “So what did you think about the new road equipment machines? You have been talking about wanting to switch from farm machinery to road equipment machinery, and this gave you a chance to see it first hand and compare it to the tractors.”
“I am very excited about them. I am just not sure the market is quite there yet. I know who my customers are for farm equipment. I know where to go to find those customers. I think the government may be the customer when it comes to road equipment, and I am not sure how that is going to work,” C.C. explained between bites.
“Better roadwork is coming if today means anything, and you said you wanted to be on the ground floor, so to speak. You know they have been working on the Yellow Trail Road all the way from Minneapolis to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. And the farm population is shrinking. I read that in the paper.”
“Well, I can agree we need better roads. When I get to drive Avery’s Ford Model T, there are some roads around here that are rough as an armadillo’s back, especially if it has rained. I can’t take the train everywhere I need to be, and the horse and wagon is not much better than the automobile. It is those farmers out in the more distant areas who would mostly benefit from a roads program, not just one day of the year, but men working like that every day.” He stopped eating and sunk his weary head onto his hands. “I am just glad I’m not the one who has to do it every day. Talk about hard work!”
In later years, Ina often thought about their work that day trying to improve one part of one road, and participating in a community project together. It always made her proud. The U. S. Post Office Department got significant appropriations in 1912 for improvement of postal roads. Later in 1916, Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act, which provided federal funds for road improvement. This was important for the growing number of automobile drivers, but also in influencing C.C. to change the focus of his career.