Although movies and TV programs depicting our country’s frontier era are not as popular today as they once were, most of us still have a mental image of the towns created by set designers. Modern technology makes it possible to relive those programs with very little effort.
Even those of us who avoid spending time staring at screens can’t help seeing depictions of frontier towns from time to time. Whether it was a spoof like Blazing Saddles or a more historically accurate depiction such as Little House on the Prairie, every town looked alike.
In the movies, the buildings along the street were all made of wood and most had false fronts. Boardwalks in front of each building were covered by roofs attached to the buildings. Of course, hitching posts were found in front of every business where a person’s horse could be tied up. At night, the only light in town was that which spilled out of the buildings, but surprisingly, it was enough to allow viewers a clear view of the action. In most scenes, there seemed to be a lot of people walking on or near the street. Horses and buggies lined the side of the street and men on horseback were always in motion, coming or going.
That scene has been recreated dozens of times in our country for commercial purposes and by tourist attractions. The question posed in this article doesn’t apply to them. Without any fanfare and usually with little or no notice, do unmodernized small towns still exist? The obvious answer would be “yes,” but maybe that response would be premature. I have good reason for saying that. You see, although I’ve spent my life in a very small town similar to those depicted in movies, I was unaware of what it really consisted of.
A person seeing our little town of Fairfield (population approximately 400) for the first time can’t help but think it is an idyllic example of what small towns should look like. Isolated from the nearest small town by 40 miles to the south, 60 miles both east and west and as many as hundreds of miles of unsettled mountainous territory to the north, at certain times of the year it looks almost like it is painted with mountains in the background. The town is laid out with roads and blocks and has a few local businesses. We have to travel quite a distance to reach someplace that resembles modern America. We just take our unique lifestyle for granted. Then something happened to make me open my eyes and really look at my surroundings.
Unique feature sets small town apart
As an old vehicle enthusiast, I have accumulated many cars and trucks from earlier eras. This region’s dry climate means that if anything metal ever was in our area, it probably still is – because nothing rusts here. Unused and unwanted vehicles just sit around and sort of fade into the background. Some are, or could be, viable vehicles with a small amount of work. I have “saved” many of those and have the best ones in garages. The others are in a board-fenced enclosure with a wide gate.
One day when I went into the back lot, I ran across a stranger. A “No Trespassing” sign is not needed here because local residents respect a person’s property and stay off. I asked the guy what he was doing in among the stored vehicles. He apologized and asked my forgiveness for being where he didn’t belong. He said he was a salesman who traveled most of the western U.S. He explained he was fatigued by the vast distances between points of civilization and when he got to our little town, he stopped to rest and saw my vehicles through the open gate. He then asked, “What town is this anyway?” When I told him, he asked a question that was amazing to me. “Do you have an ordinance against paved roads?” I told him I had never ever considered such a thing. “Well, you better get one,” he said. “Your town is unique!”
He went on to explain that in a dozen or more years of travel as a salesman, he had covered most of rural America west of the Mississippi River. Ours was the only town he had encountered with dirt roads. “Everything has been paved over,” he said.
Modern dirt roads have one key advantage
I had to laugh. We have a good reason for unpaved roads, but it isn’t that we don’t want them. You see, our town was built on an ancient lake bed nestled between two mountain ranges. Ground water is only a short distance below the surface. In the spring, the thin ground cracks in places and a semi-liquid mud oozes out of “bog holes.”
When that happens, local residents learn to drive on whatever part of a street looks solid, dodging the soft spots. In a few weeks, things dry up, regular travel patterns are restored and no one thinks anything about it. In the 1990s, a couple attempts at paving one or more blocks resulted in failure; the pavement broke into small, sharp hunks, making driving difficult.
So we still have dirt roads, but are they like those in the “old days?” What were streets and roads like back then? The movie and TV industry haven’t been honest with us, because if they had been, we wouldn’t be so willing to watch their presentations.
About the only time streets in a movie get any attention is when a shoot-out takes place. The loser falls to the ground and the camera often zooms in on him. What the camera doesn’t show is the horse manure that surely covered regular thoroughfares. I recently read a statistic that the average adult horse produces between 20 and 50 pounds of manure a day.
Every road in every town would have had a covering of that material. Nice, smooth ground (with or without horse droppings) was a rarity. With no large equipment to help correct the ruts that were inevitably created in the spring, those ruts remained a feature of a road the rest of the year. The streets of early towns were not pleasant and certainly not picturesque.
Dirt roads instill patience
Since no town in modern times is served solely by horses and horse-drawn equipment, no town has streets partially covered with manure. But other than that feature, how do dirt roads affect one’s life? Speaking from experience, here is how:
Driving on dirt roads means rough surfaces much of the time. Today, large graders are used to smooth out places that transfer shocks into the vehicle. Keep in mind that proper road grading is a skill. Some machine operators have it; some don’t. Moisture conditions have to be just right for the grader blade to cut the earth’s surface enough to remove high spots. After that, the dislodged dirt has to be redistributed so the road surface remains smooth. Misjudge conditions, and you’ve done little more than camouflage the rough spots that quickly reappear when driven on.
If conditions are too dry, most rough spots remain covered by a fine layer of loose dirt on the surface. When strong winds blow, that dirt is whipped into huge dust clouds that get pretty much everything dirty, driving the dirt into every crack and crevice. To prevent dust from blowing down the roads during the county fair, a large tank truck is used to water down every street.
Excessively wet conditions quickly bring any attempt to smooth the roads to a halt. And then there are rocks. Every locale has different soils. Ours has rocks of various sizes that equipment operators try to grade to the side of the road. There are enough, however, that it is impossible to isolate all rocks. Some invariably end up on road surfaces. It doesn’t take a very big rock, even when driving at slow speeds, to make one’s travel less than pleasurable.
Winter has its benefits
Heavily traveled roads usually end up with “washboards” – a series of long sections with ripples of hard dirt where the softer dirt between is beaten out by tires. That usually is in the late summer, when it is too dry to do any grading. In extreme cases, they get deep enough that they almost beat your vehicle to pieces at any speed. Go slow and you almost can’t stay in. Try to go faster, and there is a good chance of flying off the road because the vehicles’ tires bounce up and down so much that they lose adhesion.
Towns with dirt roads have “mud season,” usually in late spring as snow melts and the ground can’t absorb water quickly enough. Difficult travel on muddy roads is exacerbated by the fact that drivers and passengers also have to deal with the mud.
Getting anywhere on foot, or just getting into your vehicle, means some of the nasty mud comes along with you. It wouldn’t be so bad if mud season was a once-a-year event. However, in a few weeks, the mud will dry up, only to be created once again by spring rains. That sometimes happens several times.
The good news is that, even in deep-snow areas such as ours, in the winter dirt roads are basically the same as paved roads once they get packed down to a snow surface. That is, however, deceptive for newcomers. A person who bought a piece of property during the snowy months was shocked when warm spring weather began to eat away at the snow covering and “monster mud” appeared. “My realtor didn’t tell me about this!”
Local people satisfied with trade-off
After reading this short discussion, is there any question why small towns make every effort to pave their streets? Most rural areas have limited resources, but it’s a major undertaking to improve small town quality of life by eliminating dirt roads. We don’t need an ordinance banning paved roads to preserve our rustic, old-fashioned and sometimes less-than-ideal conditions.
But here is an amazing fact. Since long-term residents live here by choice, one never hears complaints about conditions any time of the year. The advantages of a secluded small town more than make up for disadvantages of less-than-perfect physical surroundings. They are all just a part of life.
Do small towns just like those in the old days still exist? No. Since horse manure was the dominant feature of all early towns, modern towns have an immediate advantage. Electricity has changed almost everything else about rural lifestyles. Visually, small towns still look pretty much the same as they did decades ago. In that respect, we are left with the possibility that many small towns in this great land of ours are, to one degree or another, similar to the “frontier towns” of yore. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.