Show Menu

"Farm-to-Table": 1914 - 1920

The Roads of Rural America

At the beginning of the year 1913, 90 per cent, or approximately 2,000,000 miles, of the roads in this country were earth. The repair and proper maintenance of earth roads are therefore of great importance.

Hewes, Laurence I. (1913). Repair and Maintenance of Highways. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Office of Public Roads. Bulletin Number 48, p. 35

Stuck in the Mud

Bradly, Bill. Stuck in the Mud, Photograph, [1900..1930]; ( University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Deaf Smith County Library, Hereford, Texas.

A prerequisite for a successful parcel post delivery system was a system of passable roads. Food designed to be marketed through the mail could not be picked up from the farmer if the mail carrier was met with a rutted, muddy, or otherwise impassable dirt road.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued publications from its Bureau of Public Roads which provided guidance on the best ways to build, maintain, and improve the earth roads that were common in rural America in the early 1900s. Here is a selection from these USDA reports, along with a general monograph on farming, which discusses dirt road design and maintenance.

This Farmers' Bulletin from 1902 laid out the basic problem and condition of earth roads at the start of the century:

Earth Roads. Eldridge, Maurice O. Assistant Director, Public Roads Inquiries. (1902). U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers' Bulletin Number 136

"The aim in making a road is to establish the easiest, shortest, and most economical line of travel. It is therefore desirable that roads should be firm, smooth, comparatively level, and fit for use at all seasons of the year; that they should be properly located so that their grades shall be such that loaded vehicles may be drawn over them without great loss of energy; that they should be properly constructed, the roadbed graded, shaped, and rolled; and that they should be surfaced with the best available material suited to their needs.

It is to be hoped that all the heavy traffic roads in the United States can be macadamized, graveled, or otherwise improved in the not distant future; but owing to the absence in many places of rock, gravel, or other hard and durable substances with which to build good roads, and by reason of the excessive cost of such roads where suitable material is scarce, the majority of our public highways will of necessity be composed of earth for many years to come. It is fortunate, therefore, that under favorable conditions of traffic, moisture, and maintenance the earth road is the most elastic and most satisfactory for pleasure and for light traffic. The condition of the common roads in this country, especially in the Middle West, is so deplorable at certain seasons of the year as to operate as a complete embargo on marketing farm products. It therefore behooves every interested citizen to know something about the location, drainage, construction, and maintenance of the earth road, and it will be the object to present in this paper the fundamental principles of earth-road construction and maintenance and to furnish instruction and advice to the road builders whose facilities are limited and who are so often supplied with only inferior materials." pp. 3-4


On April 14, 1908 patent number 884,497 was issued to David Ward King, a Missouri farmer who invented a simple and effective device that would smooth out the surface of an earth road and also push the dirt to form a "crown" in the center. This crown would act to divert rainwater to either side of the road and prevent the type of muddy surface that would impede both horse and motor-powered traffic.

The device became known as the Split-Log Drag


Road Grader. D. W. King, assignee. Patent 884,497. 14 Apr. 1908.

"Be it known that I, DAVID WARD KING, a citizen of the United States, residing at Maitland, in the county of Holt and State of Missouri, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Road-Graders, of which the following is a specification.

My invention relates to improvements in road graders; and my object is to provide a simple, efficient and inexpensive grader whereby dirt roads may be placed in good condition and easily maintained in such condition during all kinds of weather at small cost.

In preparing dirt roads it is desirable, first, to have a grader of only sufficient weight to give the road a comparatively smooth surface; second, to have the grader so arranged that it may be set transversely to the line of draft when it is desired to give a flat surface to the road, or adjusted obliquely to the line of draft so that it will move the loose dirt to the center of the road in order to crown the same, and third to have a grader which can be operated by a driver and a two-horse team."

King described the procedure for using his device and specified its benefits in a 1908 Farmers' Bulletin

The Use of the Split-Log Drag on Earth Roads. King, David Ward. (1908). U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers' Bulletin Number 321

"The earth road is by far the most common type of highway in this country. Its cheapness in comparison with other types of construction and the absence in many sections of the country of rock, gravel, or other hard natural materials for road building will render its use necessary for many years to come.

There are at present in this country about 2,000,000 miles of such roads, most of which must be maintained by some means more or less inexpensive. The split-log drag is of great service on roads of this class, and an increasing mileage of the rural highways of this country is being kept in repair economically and well by the use of this simple implement. It is now in use in many States of the Union and in foreign countries also, and its adoption in most localities where there are earth roads will doubtless increase.

The aim in writing this bulletin has been to give a concise description of the construction of the split-log drag and the method of using it which will give the best results." p. 5


King authored an entry in an agricultural text on the Split-Log Drag in 1911 with detailed instructions on its proper use:

Farm and Garden Rule-Book: A Manual of Ready Rules and Reference With Recipes, Precepts, Formulas, and Tabular Information for the Use of General Farmers, Gardeners, Fruit-Growers, Stockmen, Dairymen, Poultrymen, Foresters, Rural Teachers, and Others in the United States and Canada. Bailey, Liberty Hyde. (1911). New York: The Macmillan Company

"The Split-Log Road Drag" by D. W. King, pp. 487 - 489

"Two mistakes are commonly made in constructing a split-log drag. The first lies in making it too heavy. It should be so light that one man can easily lift it (Fig. 20).

The other mistake is in the use of squared timbers, instead of those with sharp edges, whereby the cutting effect of sharp edges is lost and the drag is permitted to glide over instead of to equalize the irregularities in the surface of the road. These mistakes are due partly to badly drawn illustrations and plans of drags which have occasionally appeared in newspapers, and partly to the erroneous idea that it is necessary that a large amount of earth shall be moved at one time.

A dry red cedar log is the best material for a drag. Red elm and walnut when thoroughly dried are excellent, and box elder, soft maple, or even willow are preferable to oak, hickory, or ash.

The log should be seven or eight feet long and from ten to twelve inches in diameter, and carefully split down the middle. The heaviest and best slab should be selected for the front. At a point on this front slab 4 inches from the end that is to be at the middle of the road locate the center of the hole to receive a cross stake, and 22 inches from the other end of the front slab locate the center for another cross stake. The hole for the middle stake will lie on a line connecting and halfway between the other two. The back slab should now be placed in position behind the other. From the end which is to be at the middle of the road measure 20 inches for the center of the cross stake, and 6 inches from the other end locate the center of the outside stake. Find the center of the middle hole as before. When these holes are brought opposite each other, one end of the back slab will lie 16 inches nearer the center of the roadway than the front one, giving what is known as "set back." The holes should be 2 inches in diameter. Care must be taken to hold the auger plumb in boring these holes in order that the stakes shall fit properly. The hole to receive the forward end of the chain should be bored at the same time.

The two slabs should be held 30 inches apart by the stakes. Straight-grained timber should be selected for the stakes, so that each stake shall fit snugly into the two-inch hole when the two slabs are in the proper position. The stakes should taper gradually toward the ends. There should be no shoulder at the point where the stakes enter the slab. The stakes should be fastened in place by wedges only.

When the stakes have been placed in position and tightly wedged, a brace two inches thick and four inches wide should be placed diagonally to them at the ditch end. The brace should be dropped on the front slab, so that its lower edge shall lie within an inch of the ground, while the other end should rest in the angle between the slab and the end stake.

A strip of iron about 3 1/2 feet long, 3 or 4 inches wide, and 1/4 of an inch thick may be used for the blade. This should be attached to the front slab, so that it will be 1/2 inch below the lower edge of the slab at the ditch end, while the end of the iron toward the middle of the road should be flush with the edge of the slab. The bolts holding the blade in place should have flat heads, and the holes to receive them should be countersunk.

If the face of the log stands plumb, it is well to wedge out the lower edge of the blade with a three-cornered strip of wood to give it a set like the bit of a plane.

A platform of inch boards held together by three cleats should be placed on the stakes between the slabs. These boards should be spaced at least an inch apart to allow any earth that may heap up and fall over the front slab to sift through upon the road again." pp. 487-489


A 1913 Office of Public Roads Bulletin praised  the benefits of King's split-log drag and captioned a photograph with the text, "GOOD ROAD CROWN MAINTAINED BY DRAGGING"
Repair and Maintenance of Highways. Hewes, Laurence I. (1913). U.S. Department of Agriculture. Office of Public Roads. Bulletin Number 48

"The split-log drag, or some of its modifications, has proved beyond doubt the best tool for earth-road maintenance. It is sometimes called the road hone. This drag may be made with either two split halves of logs, from 6 to 8 feet long and 6 to 8 inches thick, shod with iron, or with planks from 3 to 4 inches thick shod with iron, or sometimes by splitting a railroad tie with a saw. It is drawn by two horses and is designed to run at an angle to the axis of the road. The object of the drag is to move a small quantity of earth and also to puddle the surface. The two half logs are set parallel, about 3 feet apart, with the smooth sides facing forward, as shown in figure 11.

They may be connected with any desired system of braces, about 6 inches from the ground, but the drag should be rigid, and that is best secured by having two diagonal braces. The iron shoe has been successfully made from old wagon tires. In stony soils the iron shoe should extend the entire length of the blade. The position of the hitch ring governs the angle at which the drag cuts the road. The angle should be about 45°. There should be a plank for the driver, who should ride the drag. Some operators attach handles similar to plow handles, weight the drag with stone, and walk behind it to direct the movement with the handles. The construction of the plank drag is sufficiently clear from figure 12. Another form of road drag is made from two 8 or 9 foot pieces of railroad rail, and this is very effective.

The necessary features of the road drag are lightness, rigidity, and durable edges. The cost of a split-log drag should not exceed $5 when built by a carpenter. An oak plank drag is slightly more expensive.

The road drag is designed to reduce ruts by paring action and to smooth and harden the surface of a traveled way, and it does both. The action of the drag involves the movement of a small quantity of earth combined with a puddling action. It is not intended to grade a road as a road grader does. When the drag cuts too deeply, the hitch may be shortened. When it slides excessively with a long hitch, weight may be added temporarily to insure some cutting. The best time to use the drag is after a rain, as the surface of a road is then soft enough to be cut easily and is in the best condition to puddle. By its capacity to move small amounts of earth toward the center, the road drag maintains the correct crown, which always tends to flatten. By its capacity to puddle the surface, the drag builds up successive thin layers of material, which gradually become waterproof and harden while drying. Dragging should begin at the outside of the road and progress toward the center. The road drag is not a cure-all for bad roads, although almost any road is helped by dragging. To secure the best results the road should be in good repair as to section and drainage, and the drag should be used often, especially in the first season. An old road, full of cobbles used to fill "chuck" holes, cannot respond to dragging. The drag should be used always when the road is wet but not so sticky that mud clings to the blades. This is often the case in the black soils of the Middle West, and a smoothing drag or slicker is used successfully in such conditions. Dragging a dry road is of no benefit. The road drag consequently is peculiarly adapted to a system of continuous road maintenance, and the annual cost is low." pp. 44-45


A 1917 Farmers' Bulletin was devoted solely to road drags:

The Road Drag and How it is Used. Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering. (1917). U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers' Bulletin Number 597

"An attempt will be made in this paper to describe the best methods of constructing and using road drags and to supply information concerning the conditions for which such drags are adapted. Since, under favorable conditions, road drags may be effectively used in maintaining roads constructed of earth, top soil, sand clay, or gravel, a brief discussion of the essential features of each of these types of construction will also be given in order that the purposes of the drag may be more fully understood.

When it is appreciated that of more than 2,000,000 miles of public roads in the United States only about 200,000 miles have been given a hard surface, and of these 200,000 miles approximately one-half are surfaced with gravel, the importance of every effective device for maintaining the simpler types of roads becomes readily apparent. It should be observed in this connection that a large part of our total mileage of public roads is entirely unimproved and that the drag is of little use in improving sand or clay roads which have never been crowned or drained. A much larger part, however, has been sufficiently improved to make the work of the drag effective, and it is unquestionably true that the magnitude of this part is steadily increasing.

Notwithstanding the fact that road drags, made of wood or a combination of wood and metal, have been in use for at least two generations and were described in a textbook published as early as 1851 (Roads and Railroads, by William Gillespie, p. 191), the benefits to be derived from using them are, even now, far from being generally understood. This fact is thoroughly evidenced by the prevalence of very unsatisfactory roads upon which considerably more money is annually expended in hauling materials to fill holes and ruts than would be required to maintain the roads in good condition by the intelligent use of a road drag." p. 1


A 1917 U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin describes three kinds of tools designed to perform functions similar to those of the split-log drag: Drag scrapers, Fresno scrapers, and Wheeled scrapers.

Earth, Sand-Clay, and Gravel Roads. Moorefield, Charles H. (1917). U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin Number 463

"A drag scraper of the common type is illustrated in figure 16. Such scrapers are made in 1-horse, 1 1/2-horse, and 2-horse sizes, which have respective rated capacities of 3, 5, and 7 cubic feet. Drag scrapers have an average weight, when empty, of from 75 to 100 pounds, and an actual capacity of about three- fourths the rated capacity. The price, f. o. b. factory, averages about from $4 to $6 per scraper.

In operating drag scrapers the drivers also may load and empty the scraper, but frequently it is economical to provide additional laborers for this purpose. With a haul length of 100 feet and the teams moving steadily, one laborer should be able to load or empty and spread the material for about three scrapers. For scraper work to be effective the material to be excavated must be thoroughly loosened by the plows and should be free from large roots or stones. Where such obstructions occur time is saved by having them removed by hand during the progress of the plowing." pp. 27-28