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
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