Farm Collector

Early Road Drags

The word “drag” has come to have several meanings. Much depends on the age of the person uttering the word. Great-granddad used to take a “drag” on his “pure Havana cigar”; Granddad would “drag” his date to the prom; while his son fired up the ’57 Chevy and headed for the “drag” strip, all the while thinking those who used to be known as “squares” were now “drags.”

Down on Muddy Creek in those long ago days of my youth, the old Webster’s dictionary listed “drag” as in dragging the road.

Most of my readers cannot fathom the idea that the “hard” road, “the slab,” was created in our lifetime. Henry Homer was elected governor of Illinois on a “good roads” platform less than a lifetime ago, in 1920. Even as late as in the mid-fifties, 1950, that is, there were myriad miles of dirt roads still serving the public in many of our counties.

When the settlers came into this area, they found wide paths (or traces) made by the buffalo. With small hooves, the buffalo were forced to travel the ridges, and instinctively chose the solid ground for their traces. One such ran from the Ohio River at Louisville, up past the salt licks of Indiana to Vincennes and on past Red Hill clean to the Mississippi River.

Route 50 pretty well follows that two-century-old “cow” path. It is recorded that this trace was “wide enough for two wagons to pass.”

As the Native Americans moved westward, the pioneers found the need for a wider track than the trails the Indians had first walked. After the horse was introduced, they widened the paths enough to let the horse drag a couple of poles that were lashed together to pull a small load-carrying device.

There was little “in between” condition on the early roads. In the summer, the clay loam would soon be beaten into powder and become at least a foot deep, kicked up by trotting horses, hang in the air, and settle over the occupants of whatever conveyance was being pulled.

The early open automobiles listed among the necessary accessories: goggles for the eyes, a silk scarf to cover the head and hold the hat in place, and above all, a full-length “duster.” It was bad enough when buggies and wagons met or were passed, but with the advent of the automobile, the clouds of dust produced became a real problem.

In winter or after the rainy season started, all that changed. The first rain converted this foot-deep dust bowl into a loblolly of mud, mud, mud. Unless one has actually lived through a bout with mud, there is no way that he can truly appreciate the glue-like consistency and leaden weight of boots packed to the knee with just plain mud.

It is difficult to imagine mud so deep that a horse would have great difficulty struggling through it, let alone pulling or carrying a load.

The nearest one can come by such a sight in today’s world is to watch an oil drilling rig being towed into place in mid-February when the frost is just “going out”.

About the only recourse the road users had was to “drag” the ruts closed, so that they could then be reopened by the first “rigs” that struggled through.

The United States Department of Agriculture issued a bulletin that gave, in great detail, directions for constructing a road drag.

In brief, it consisted of securing two six-foot long heavy logs, or, better yet, railroad ties, chaining or bolting them together with a platform to hold a few huge field boulders for weight, and then adding a hitch so that the contraption could be pulled slouch-wise along the road, smoothing and leveling the mud. Most times, daily dragging was the only way the mud could be “worked” and finally dried out.

The knee-deep footprints of the horses would be covered, at least in places, by the drag, and then, should a sharp freeze occur, a solid smooth surface would greet the early rising buggy driver. By the time he returned from his errand, he was sure to be greeted by re-created ruts or hunks of broken, half-frozen clods that tipped, snarled and bruised the team.

Before the 1920s, many farmers “worked out” their poll tax by dragging the road several times during the winter. Poll tax was the charge every man (women had no vote in those days) had to pay for his right to vote.

By the mid-twenties, factory-built drags and wheeled graders had become available, and with a few farm-to-market roads being built, the farmers were not so isolated. Then, with more and more automobiles on the road, the demand for township and state support for better roads brought on a road-building boom.

A few towns in Illinois were the recipients of tantalizingly short stretches of politically inspired “farm to market” roads, one on either side of the city. A few are still visible, and are worthy candidates for historical preservation. The right side of the road was paved so that the loaded farm wagon would have a solid surface as it approached the market, but the left side was left in natural dirt or mud, as the case might be. As one farmer said, “The city fellers want to help me get to the market, but after they get my money, they send me home with light pockets.”

One very fine example of such a road is near Paris, Ill. This one is unique in that it is built of paving brick, and is still in perfect condition and in its original form, just off the Clinton Road. FC

The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

  • Published on Jan 1, 2000
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