Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Odd Wisconsin Archive

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood


Did you know that state government was originally forbidden from spending anything at all on roads and highways? That's especially odd, since today the state spends 2.5 billion dollars annually on transportation. What caused that 180-degree change in attitude?

The framers of the 1848 constitution inserted a clause saying that "the state may never contract any debt for works of internal improvement, or be a party in carrying on such works." They had seen other states assume large debts for transportation projects only to become unable to pay them off later, and they wanted to be sure that this did not happen here. Instead, they gave local governments responsibility for financing and maintaining roads "their own" roads.

But town boards were reluctant to antagonize their constituents, and so only cautiously voted for road funds. They allowed local residents either to pay cash or supply labor and materials to an annual road maintenance project, and voters elected their own overseers to supervise the work.

"Generally chosen for a lenient disposition," writes a historian of Wisconsin roads, "rather than for qualities of leadership or engineering ability, the overseer's lack of enthusiasm for his task rivaled only that of his charges. Indeed, an overzealous supervisor found his tenure brief. Consequently, many farmers almost looked forward to their spring road work, since they viewed it as 'a sort of annual picnic' where they met 'to swap stories and trade horses.' One farmer confessed that 'we don't do much work on the roads, [as] our roads are naturally good and we don't purpose to disturb them much.'"

The obvious result of this approach was terrible roads, such as this one near Black River Falls. In fact, as late as 1900 more than 80% of Wisconsin's rural roads were not adequately paved. Country towns and outlying farms were profoundly isolated, especially in the winter and spring. Since farmers shipped most of their produce by rail between 1850 and 1890, they weren't too concerned (though they hated being at the mercy of the railroads).

So what prompted people to decide that state government should ensure safe roads statewide? The bicycle.

The first bicycles appeared in Wisconsin in 1878, and by the 1890s an estimated 15,000 cyclists were trying to negotiate inadequate roads. By then, Wisconsin had become a center of bicycling in the United States, as cyclists formed clubs and advocated for road improvements in journals such as The Pneumatic, published in Milwaukee to a nationwide audience. Bicycle clubs partnered with business groups in what became known as the Good Roads Movement. With posters such as this one, they sought converts to their cause. Modern roads were included on the menu of Progressive Era reforms, with university experts investigating the problem and a state commission recommending specific solutions.

Many farmers, however, still opposed them as late as the year 1900. They denounced bicyclists as "city dudes" and "lazy fellows," and rather than supporting state oversight they simply urged their legislators to restrict cycling instead. And the constitution still prohibited the state from investing taxpayers' dollars in internal improvements.

It took more than 10 years (1897-1907) for the Good Roads Movement to persuade legislators to enact, and voters to agree to, an amendment allowing the state to help improve country roads.

During that decade the automobile made its appearance, and many rural residents saw the advantage of cars for getting in and out of town or paying calls on friends and family. By 1907, two-thirds of Wisconsin farmers had switched their position and agreed in principle to state road aids. In 1908 a constitutional amendment passed that permitted the state to invest tax dollars in a system of highways. A 1911 law required county officials to map out the best cross-county routes, and the state reimbursed counties for a third of the costs to improv them. By 1918, nearly a quarter of the state's rural roads were properly surfaced, and a system of state-supported trunk highways had been begun.

The rest, as they say, is history.


:: Posted in on April 22, 2007

  • Questions about this page? Email us
  • Email this page to a friend
select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text