Navigating the Muddy Roads of Yesteryear

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Sam Moore remembers the dangers thaws, rains and floods presented to early motorists.


| May 2001



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Getting stuck in the mud used to be a common hazard on unpaved country and township roads.

After a day of thawing snow and another of steady, pouring rain, my yard, the ground around my barns, and the fields across the lane are all saturated with mud and standing water everywhere. However, cars and trucks hum along the state highway out front, and even a drive on the more rural township roads presents no problem. I guess everyone who complains about today's high taxes needs to hark back to the early days of the automobile, when even major roads between towns were virtually impassable at times, due to the axle-deep mud that developed during the late-winter thaws and heavy spring rains.

I once read a story (that may or may not be true) about a fellow who was carefully skirting a mud hole in the center of a 'highway,' when he saw a good hat bobbing in the mud. Stopping his Model T, the man waded over to retrieve the hat. Imagine his surprise when, upon picking up the hat, there was a head under it. He offered to pull the hat owner out of the mud, but this hardy gentleman replied that he'd just ride on through, on the mule he was astride.

A better example of the problems caused by bad roads is the following story from the Salem, Ohio, newspaper (called, at that time, 'The Republican-Era'), of Nov. 30, 1905. Under the headline "Fix the Road or Lose Delivery," the reporter writes:

"There is a possibility that some of the patrons of R.F.D. Route No. 2 from the Salem post office, running south, will be cut off from service this winter owing to the disinclination of some of the Butler township road officials and tax payers to keep their roads in good condition. The strip is about a mile in length, and runs north from the Coffee school house to a point near the Daniel Ritchey home. It has been a source of complaint all summer, and matters reached such a state that Carrier Jones reported the condition. The postmaster took up the matter with the (Postal) department, with the result that he was instructed to notify the patrons in question (ten families) that unless improvements were made within the time specified (30 days), the department would consider suspending mail service on that strip of road."

And just in case anyone thinks this was only a problem back in the pre-World War I days, consider the following statistics. At the end of 1930, Ohio had almost 74,000 miles of county and local roads with more than 34,000 of the miles being dirt (non-surfaced), while another 30,600 were gravel-surfaced. Of the more than 77,000 miles of rural roads in Pennsylvania at the same time, almost 60,000 were dirt, and another 12,500 gravel.

Even I (a mere youngster) can remember during the 1940s, when the half-mile of township road connecting our farm to the Macadam State Highway dissolved into a pair of deep, muddy ruts every spring. Dad had a contract to haul kids to one of the township's one-room schools and our family car doubled as a school bus. For this reason, we always had a heavy, old seven-passenger car (during the 30s, a 1929 Packard, and then, from about 1940, a 1936 Cadillac) that had a lot of trouble negotiating the muddy ruts. Broken rear axles that, of course, had to be replaced in the middle of the road were fairly common, especially on the Cadillac. Tire chains were usually on our cars most of the winter, and the spring as well. Our mailman must have worn out a set of tire chains every year, and his late model Chevrolet sedans were always covered either with mud or dust.