Gravel wagons powered by heavy horses, mules
Back in the early 1920s, Len Small ran for and was elected governor of Illinois on a ‘Good Roads’ platform. With him came million-dollar bond issues and a flurry of road building throughout the state. Lawrence County for once got her share.
In those long ago days, the roads were mostly dirt tracks around the section lines. ‘Improved’ meant they had been, perhaps, graded a little and dragged to smooth out the ruts.
With the bond issue came the use of state money to buy gravel that would at least partly weatherproof these ‘improved’ roads.
Most of the gravel for improving the roads, such as the Sumner-Chauncey and Trace roads around Red Hill, came from the gravel pits in the Wabash bottom north of Lawrenceville.
In fact, Lake Lawrence, a favorite recreation spa of the Depression years, was the source of much of that gravel.
There were a few entrepreneurs, like Dale Lewis, who converted Model ‘T’ trucks into dump trucks, and although they could haul only a half wagon load, they could and did make many trips in a day’s time. In fact, Dale was so willing that he would make an extra night trip and be the first in line to ‘dump’ when the crew came on in the morning. This ambition earned him the moniker ‘Hog’ Lewis.
However, most of the gravel was hauled in wagons that were pulled by teams of from two to six horses or mules. The horses usually were either Percherons or Belgians and the mules were half of either because the mule is a hybrid cross between a horse mare and a Jackass.
The big mules stood the heat somewhat better than the horses and were increasingly popular even though they pulled a somewhat smaller load. Mules were usually used in the unique eight-horse combinations.
The six-horse hitch in tandem, that is two by two by two, was the most common, and was oft times controlled by a ‘jerk line’ rather than by six lines, two to each animal. In such a hitch, the first team was called the ‘wheelers,’ the next two had the name of ‘pointers’ and the front team was known as ‘the swing team.’
The left lead horse was always known as the leader, although in the rare cases where eight horses pulled the load, the front team was called the ‘leaders.’ I can remember seeing only a very few such hitches, and usually it was when the going was very tough, with the roadbed soft. The extra team was used to boost the load for a short distance through mud holes or deep, soft ruts.
The six-horse team was not unusual, although the use of the ‘jerk line’ was not so common because it took an experienced teamster to successfully use it.
The jerk line was a stout, braided-leather line or rope that was strung along the left side of each left animal, through rings on the back pads and finally snapped to the left bridle bit of the lead animal.
A short, adjustable strap was hooked to the right bit ring and fastened to the right hame. This was called the ‘Gee’ strap, and when the driver wanted the team to go right, he gently slapped the horses’ rumps with the jerk line. That caused the leader to lift his head and, feeling the pull of the ‘Gee’ strap, turn his head to relieve the pressure, which swung him to the right.
A jockey stick, usually a broom handle with a snap on either end, was hooked to his right bit ring and to the left bit of the teammate at his side. The jockey stick would guide the other animal’s head in unison with the leader.
The noise of the steel wheels on the loose gravel, the snorts of the animals and the squeals of the axles needing grease made voice commands somewhat inaudible, but the teams soon learned that ‘Haw’ meant to turn left, ‘Gee’ to turn right and ‘Whoa’ to stop.
Every teamster had his preference of ‘Giddie up’ or a high-pitched squeaking sound made by sharply drawing his breath through his teeth, which makes a sound that carries well and that soon is learned by both horses and mules.
The wagons had heavy-duty running gears with beds made of a dozen or so two-by-fours laid side by side for the floor. The boards formed a platform about 42 inches by 12 feet and were tapered at either end to shape a rounded hand hold.
When the wagon was pulled into place for unloading, the near sideboard of the box was removed and part of the gravel or sand would slide off into a pile between the wheels. The wagon then would be moved ahead a length and a man at either end of the bed would lift off the other sideboard and turn the two-by-fours over one by one so to dump the remaining gravel.
The cleaned two-by-fours were stacked to one side until all had been reversed and then they were replaced. The two-sideboard load would contain about 2 1/3 cubic yards, which probably totaled close to 5 tons. This was a pretty fair load for the teams to pull over and through the loose gravel and just-graded dirt.
The only way to travel between the Sumner-Chauncey road work and the gravel pit was by way of the Trace Road, or the ‘Lincoln Trail’ as it is now known. Officially, the road through Vincennes to St. Louis was designated as Route 12, and was marked with a big ’12’ painted on a white background on telephone poles along the right of way.
The traffic along this road had packed the gravel well and there was a need for some way to slow the wagons on a couple of hills, which we call ‘grades’ today. Especially steep were the slopes of Red Hill, where the heavy loads might easily get away and overrun the teams.
A primitive brake was carried by most teamsters. This was called a ‘shoe’ and was but a heavy cast iron plate about a foot-and-a-half long, with 4-inch-high sides.
A log chain was attached to one end and when a hill or a steep river bank was to be descended, the teamster would lay this in front of a rear wheel, attach the chain to the front axle and then pull forward with the wheel now securely locked on the ‘skid’ or shoe. In this way, the one wheel would drag, slowing the descent.
Every driver also carried his own ‘blacksnake.’ This was a braided 16-ft-long leather whip with a ‘popper’ on its end. A talented teamster could crack this whip and get cooperation from the teams without ever touching them, and many could flick a horsefly off a mule’s ear without causing the mule to even flinch.
‘Aw, Grandpa, you’re kid din’.’
‘Nope, honest truth,’ sez I.
One of the side businesses spawned by the road building was the traveling blacksmith shop, where the steel rims of wagon wheels could be reset after drying out in the summer heat and the iron shoes on the horses periodically replaced.
The smithy set up his forge and anvil under most any convenient shade tree and made a pretty good living shoeing the horses.
For some unexplained reason, the mules had fewer problems with loose shoes than their heavier cousins, but the blacksmith had a constant chore of replacing loose or missing shoe nails. The very same nails would plague motorists for years, until cement slabs were laid over the gravel, covering the remaining nails.
All of the wagons had a tool box mounted on the front, just behind the double tree. This had a rainproof, sloping, hinged and overhung lid where each wagoner kept his wagon wrench and a 5-lb. can of axle grease.
Due to the dust, the open boxes of the wheels needed frequent additions of the heavy, vile-smelling grease to keep them from squeaking.
This chore usually was done right after the wagon was unloaded and while the team was unhitched to be watered before starting back for another load.
With the bare running gears now carrying only the wagon bed, it was a simple task to remove the wheel nut, tip the top of the wheel outward and expose the bare axle. Then, a couple of dabs of grease would be smeared on the axle, the wheel shoved back in place and the nut tightened.
On most wagons the wagon wrench did double duty as a pin for the double tree, to which the wheeler team was hitched.
The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.