Good Roads Day

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.

Some Degree of Happiness

“And they lived happily ever after.” Is this just a fairy tale? I tried to end each of my four stories in my book, HERside of HIStory—Finding My Foremothers’ Footprints on a positive note. However, I don’t think I have seen anyone live every moment happily. At some point, we all have to die, and that may involve some pain which I would interpret as unhappiness. I think the best we can hope for is “mostly happiness.” That’s what I should start wishing people, a life with mostly happiness, or more good than bad.

One of the first things you read as a newly minted author is that conflict makes the story. Conflict reeks of unhappiness. I certainly found that it was more fun to write about people arguing or undermining each other than those who were always pleasant and agreeable. One could even argue that a certain degree of unhappiness is necessary for happiness to occur. A cosmic duality, yin and yang if you will. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.

So you have to expose a problem or two when writing a novel and show how your heroine overcomes the adversity. And grows. Or yes, this experience is supposed to make her grow in some way. I don’t know about you, but in real life dealing with adversity just makes me tired, and cranky. Or it makes me grow older. Not so much wiser, but maybe I am selling myself short.

In that vein, I am going to add some “outtakes” from the aforementioned book. The section “Nellie” contains the most conflict. I omitted this part of the story when I was trying to cut back on the content. Stephen King suggested reducing your book by 10% in the second draft, and I took his advice. This was on the cutting room floor, so to speak:



This scene takes place in Brewster, Kansas, in 1919 after Nellie and Ben had been dating awhile, and she realized they kept having the same argument:

She knew it was time to be as honest as she could with Ben, and hoped he would do likewise, even if it meant they had to stop seeing each other.

“This is not working for either one of us,” she told him a few days before Thanksgiving, as they were walking to the Cochrane house, where she was picking up her sister, Zella. “I think we are getting too old to go out partying every weekend. For one thing, it is too expensive. If you are ever going to have anything worthwhile in life, you have to save your money to buy a house or a farm, something that is an investment. I know you say that you don’t want to turn into your father, and have all those responsibilities, and that is your choice. But going forward, I think that is what I want for my life, to have a business or a job, be able to have some sort of stable home life, with children, and just do what other people do. I think we just want different things. Maybe we are wasting our time trying to be together.”

He was clearly a little shocked. “You’re telling me after all this time, you don’t wanna be with me? Now you want someone like your daddy. I think you would just get bored. Maybe I won’t want to be a free spirit forever, but I am still sowing my wild oats after being cooped up in that so-called army training camp for almost two years. But, hey, if that is what you want, I guess it ain’t me.”  With a note of sarcasm he added, “See you around, Sweetheart.”  Then he turned on his heel and walked the other way, back toward the store.

By Thanksgiving Day, she had gotten past the initial pain of breaking off a relationship, but she had not gotten up the nerve to mention it to her family. It was easier just to not think about him at all. She was in the middle of making her favorite chocolate meringue pie when she heard a racket outdoors and looked out to see her young brother, Verner, and her nieces Lazetta and Beth all laughing over a dark furred puppy that Ben was holding out to them. Oh no, she thought. Why is he here?  I suppose he was invited weeks ago, maybe Mom even mentioned it to him, but surely he realized that everything has changed now.

Just then, five-year-old Beth came running into the kitchen, cradling the dog, followed by the others. “Aunt Nellie, look. Look what Ben brought for me!  Isn’t he just adorable?  I’m going to call him Gobbler cuz I got him on Thanksgiving. Do you want to pet him?”

 She gave the dog a pat, and had to admit he was very cute. Then Beth raced off to show the puppy to her grandfather, who was in the living room. Nellie gave Ben a questioning look, but he simply acted as though everything was fine, and he went to talk to her father about the dog. That just made her angry, as she was two days into forgetting about him, and he just showed up as though nothing had changed. At the dinner table, she didn’t speak to him unless it was to ask to pass the potatoes, but kept glaring at him while he tried to entertain her family with his witty anecdotes. No one seemed to notice except for Zella, who began to look back and forth between Nellie and Ben. She confronted Nellie when they went back into the kitchen while clearing away the dishes.

“You two had another fight, didn’t you? No, NO…you broke up with him? And he still came to dinner?” Zella asked, reading Nellie’s face.

She hadn’t expected her tears to betray her, but she wasn’t able to stop them. She reached for her heavy coat hanging on a hook in the hallway. “I’m going outside. Would you ask him to come talk to me?”

“Aren’t we having dessert?” Ben called out, when he found her on the back porch.

“Dessert?  No, this is the part where you explain why you are here. Why did you come to Thanksgiving dinner with my whole family after we broke up? I thought you agreed that we didn’t belong together.”

“I don’t do explanations or apologies, I thought you’d figured that out,” he muttered. “But I’m here, I want to be here. I’m willing to try it. Can’t you just see that?”

“What do you mean, you are going to try?  Are you saying you’re going to settle down, stop going to the clubs, save your money, plan a future?  What is it you are trying?” she asked, wiping away a warm tear from her frozen cheek.

“Whatever you want. I am trying to be what you want. I want to be with you, and if that is what you want, I will try.” She smiled then, not quite believing her ears, and wrapped him in a warm embrace.

“Can we go have some pie now?” He sounded like a little boy.

He was serious about changing his lifestyle, Nellie soon realized. He stopped going to Goodland, unless it was on an errand for Mr. Horney, or to take her to a picture show. He mentioned that some of the clubs had closed with the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, which had started nationwide alcohol prohibition. In Kansas, the speakeasies were even under more scrutiny because of the strong presence of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union there. He spent more time at her parents’ farm and even begin asking her father for advice on setting up a dairy business.


You will find the rest of Nellie and Ben’s saga in the soon to be published book.