A month ago, when we last looked into the lives of James and Lena McKenney,* we realized how quickly we can take some of our modern conveniences for granted. The topic then was electricity. That was easy. Now, James’s notes in his ledger help us to appreciate bituminous concrete.
Alright, most of us know it as “blacktop” or “asphalt.” Some of us know it as “ashfault.” I could go on. But those individuals who make a career out of designing or building today’s byways, call it “bituminous concrete.” And today, it's everywhere.
The point is, one hundred years ago there was a real good chance that nice, smooth, rut-free roads were not part of James’s and Lena’s lives. This had a significant impact on the ease and comfort (or lack of it) in getting from one location to another. And it often resulted in some minor inconveniences that could really get under one’s skin. We know it did for James. I’m pretty sure that one hundred years ago this week, on the last day of April 1912, there was a moment when James was pretty darn ticked off.
By late April, maple sugaring season was over, and James was bringing two quarts of syrup home to Lena. But he lost them. We’re not saying he misplaced them. That syrup just didn’t make the whole trip. In New England, the spring season was also known as the mud season. James probably set the syrup down in his cart, got his horse pointed in the right direction, and headed home…over a terrible muddy and rutted dirt road. Somewhere along the way, that jug of syrup fell off his cart.
Were these roads an inconvenience? Obviously, yes. But more importantly, the roadway system in the United States was so bad at the turn of the century, that it was having a dramatic impact on the expansion of our economy. Consider this statement, published in the American Motorist, in May of 1913, just about a year after James lost his syrup:
“…and it is generally true that the employers of labor will find that difference between harmony and discontent in the ranks of their employees is often only the difference between good roads and bad roads in all parts of the country. For poor roads make for a high cost of living and when the price of the necessaries of life goes up, the small wage earner is the first to feel the pinch.”
Eventually, things got better for James and his horse cart. On April 30, 1914 (exactly two years to the day after James lost his syrup!), The Automobile magazine published this recognition of the State's effort to improve Maine roads:
“Maine has awakened to the possibilities of what good highways mean, and last year saw the installation of a highway commission of three men… The state began by improving the road between the state line at New Hampshire and Portland, the worst stretch in the state, if not in New England…”
“Bout time!” said James, over a stack of dry pancakes.
*In 1912, James McKenney lived and farmed with (his wife?) Lena, in Readfield, Maine. I'm fortunate to have found his ledger at a flea market. Occasionally, we’ll look back at James's notes to see what he and Lena were up to, one hundred years ago.