John Davis

Roadbuilding provided jobs in Southwestern Minnesota in a post-World War I depression. In this period, new money for building roads was available from state and federal governments, and counties in many parts of Minnesota put up some of their own funds to start the projects, seeking to prepare roads for autos and, in 1921 and 1922, to relieve the depression's effects on people.

The southwestern counties and the others in Minnesota resembled many in the rest of the nation. They were participating in a postwar effort for better roads that also was a rural program of public works, designated by Congress in 1919 to relieve unemployment, expected as the nation's military and its war production demobilized. Most of the federal-aid road projects built by late 1922 were either costly paving or low-cost grading and graveling. Near and between big cities, heavy traffic of autos required paved road surfaces of concrete or asphalt, which raised taxes of farmers in some states. In parts of the Midwest and elsewhere in the nation, some farmers protested paving in the depression and called instead for grading or graveling, for those low-cost projects could improve travel under the lighter traffic of rural areas.

Many highway officials of counties and states also favored low-cost projects, which could extend their funds to improve more miles of road, provide jobs in more rural areas, and comply with farmers' wishes. In the federal-aid highway program by mid-1922, many miles of the low-cost road projects were built in the nation, particularly in two belts of states--across the North from Wisconsin to Montana and Wyoming and across the South from North Carolina to New Mexico. Minnesota built the most, using federal funds matched from state and county bonds approved after the war. Southwestern Minnesota, where roads served numerous rural communities yet few large cities that would concentrate traffic and require paving, offers examples of how Minnesota built its many miles of graveling.

John Davis graduated from Iowa State University's PhD program in Agricultural History and Rural Studies in August 2002. His research has been about the federal-aid highway program, which, when implemented in the nation in 1920-22, was an early federal effort to relieve unemployment in a depression. He is an Alabama native and has lived also in South Carolina and Iowa.


Public Presentation: "Public Works in a Depression: Federal-Aid Road Building 1920-22 in Southwest Minnesota"
Tuesday, February 25, 2003 3:00 p.m., Charter Hall 225

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Last updated: March 21, 2006