Muscatine County, Iowa
Muscatine Journal & News-Tribune
Centennial Edition
31 May 1940

Section 7 - Page 2, Submitted by Shirley Plumb, July 4, 2012

Surfaced Roads Supplant Old Trails
County Takes Long Steps Forward in Road Building
During Past Few Decades

Probably one of the most drastic changes in the physical make-up of Muscatine County—symbolizing more graphically than anything else the march of progress—is to be seen in the improvement in its road system. For the main portion of the advancement in road construction and surfacing has taken place within the past several decades—within the recollection of all but the youngest residents of the community.

Pavement was an unknown product in Muscatine County until about 12 years ago and although there was some gravel and crushed rock surfacing, most of the county still wallowed through mud highways. Today, Muscatine County can be proud of its record of road improvements which has placed it near the leadership in the state, in this respect.

Plans For Future.

County engineer F. P. G. Halbfass has predicted that Muscatine County can be entirely “out of the mud: within the next ten year span, according to present plans for the future. Of a total mileage of 745, there were as of Jan. 1, 1940, 455 miles of surfaced and 290 miles of unsurfaced roads in the county. It is estimated, however, that only about 170 miles of this unsurfaced and unimproved mileage are of much importance, and the improvement of this mileage consequently will to all practical purposes get the county “out of the mud.”

The state road system at present comprises 105 miles of completely surfaced highways in Muscatine County; completely surfaced county trunk roads comprise 70 miles; surfaced and improved local county roads make up 211 miles; and surfaced but unimproved local county roads include 69 miles.

Served by the improved highways in the county are 1,483 farms and village homesteads, leaving 711, or approximately one-third of the total, yet to be reached. It is the aim of the present and future county road program to extend surfaced roads to these residents.

It was only a quarter-century ago that the roads in the county were nearly all ungraded, natural soil, wagon roads. Automobiles were just starting to make their appearance, and the need for better and faster arteries of travel had not been acutely felt.

Nearly all the highway trails of that time consisted of two deep tracks worn into the sodden ground by steel-tired wagons and horses’ feet. These ruts dodged from side to side of the right-of-way to dodge trees and stumps, water and sand pockets, protruding banks and other obstructions. Cars were built with high wheels so they could more easily straddle the high jutting centers between the winding rutted trails.

The start of the big transition came in 1913. Previous to that time, all work done on the rural roads was under the direction of the 14 different boards of township trustees, who levied direct property taxes and used poll tax labor for what they considered the summer needs of roads in the individual townships.

Engineer Hired.

In 1913, the state legislature enacted a new road law which created the office of county engineer and made it mandatory upon the board of supervisors to employ technical help in carrying out road and bridges improvements. It also required that the supervisors select a county trunk road and bridge improvements. It also required that the supervisors select a county trunk road system of about 20 per cent of the total mileage in the county, and to begin its development by building according to be planned program, under engineering supervision.

J. J. Ryan was Muscatine County’s first county engineer, and he served until 1913 when the position was taken over by F. F. G. Halbfass, who still holds that office. First work to be started under the county engineer set-up was replacement and strengthening of old flimsy culverts and bridges, and ditching operations.

The first job of grading a continuous stretch of road by survey and plans was accomplished in 1916—eight miles from Muscatine to the Cedar River on the Nichols road. Two miles of this first attempt as road building were contracted to Elmer Gochenour, and six miles to Ryan and Fuller.

The next great road building achievement was on the West Liberty road, from Muscatine six miles out, the contract for which was awarded to Ryan and Fuller. The first stretch of pavement was laid to Moscow in 1814 over a bad stretch of sand, four-tenths of a mile in length.

First gravel surfacing took place during the fall of 1915 on a two and three-quarter mile stretch from Muscatine to Funck’s hill on the Conesville road. Work was all done by hand labor and teams, and the farmers along the road donated their time and teamsters to cooperate with the contractor.

Use of pea gravel was started in 1924 when W. G. Block donated 150 cubic yards from his Island plant to place on a quarter mile stretch of the Nichols road, out from Muscatine. The experiment proved highly successful, and the use of pea gravel was generally adopted.

Modern paved highway construction began in earnest when the county in 1926 voted bonds to assist in paving some of the important state routes, and additional bonds were voted in November, 1928, for the completion of the state highway paving program in the county.

New Law Stimulated Work.

A new turn in events came in 1930 when the Bergman road bill, creating a workable plan for improvement of secondary road systems, went into effect. In the past 10 years since the law was enacted, the Muscatine county trunk system has been expanded 70 mile to include all heavy traffic routes.

The remaining local roads, totaling now 570 miles, have 211 miles well built, graded and surfaced; and 69 miles not very well graded, but at least surfaced. The total of 280 miles of local roads out of the mud is almost 50 per cent, compared with 8.3 per cent just 10 years ago.

Vast improvements have been made in construction design to meet the evolution in the automobile industry. And today roads are safer, smoother, straighter, and better located and drained—as Muscatine keeps step with the general march of progress.

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“Our merchants have been greeted during the past few weeks by the familiar faces of farmers from Jones and Linn counties who were in times past their regular customers but who have not visited the city for three of four years. They say they have come here with their produce ‘to get some good money to pay their taxes.’ Up where they live the shinplasters of Davenport and Dubuque have driven gold and its equivalent in the shape of money completely from circulation.” – Muscatine Journal, January 23, 1858.

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“The present town of West Liberty was surveyed by Peter Houtz. A town called Liberty or West Liberty was laid out about one and one-quarter miles northeast of the present one in 1838 and platted by Simeon A. Bagley and George Baumgardner. But in 1855 when the railroad came to Iowa it missed this town and the town moved to the railroad line.”—Muscatine Journal, January 22, 1856.

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PRE-DATING THE MOTOR CAR – Horse and buggy travel was the main mode of locomotion for those who traveled to somewhat distant points when the photo above, was taken in 1901. It pictures the livery and sales stable of Frank Bowman on Front Street and the time was one of the best in this part of the country. Started with two horses, both of which was blind, and one transfer wagon. It boasted of 100 horses, 150 buggies, carriages, cabs, traps, wagonettes and pleasure vehicles during its heyday, when its 20th anniversary was celebrated.

Photos of Frank Bowman Livery Stable and Kenneth Fairall who owned the Fairall Paint Store which sold Lowe Brothers paints and varnishes plus wallpaper since 1932.

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