Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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GOOD ROADS ASSOCIATION

In the nineteenth century Oklahoma's roads, like those of other states and territories, sometimes impeded more than aided the transportation of people, goods, and mail. The Indian nations and Oklahoma Territory did not have the financial resources to maintain transportation routes with any kind of regularity, nor did the technology yet exist to do so. In Oklahoma Territory and during the early years of statehood, road maintenance was the responsibility of townships, the thirty-six-mile-square subdivisions within counties. Local men were required to grade the section-line roads, which comprised the only public roads then existing in rural areas. To travel across the territories or the state meant subjecting oneself and one's mode of transportation (wagon, and later, automobile) to the management abilities of county commissioners and township officers and to the willingness and skills of citizen road crews. Before the turn of the century a national movement emerged, resulting in 1893 in the forming of a National Good Roads Association, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created an Office of Road Inquiry, which in 1905 became the Office of Public Roads.

Oklahomans also formed local promotional organizations. The first, established in 1902 in Logan County, was the Sand Valley Good Roads Association, led by A. C. Titus. Meeting in Guthrie in 1904, local delegates and national representatives formed the Oklahoma-Indian Territory Good Roads Association. Railroad companies were inclined to help the roads people; the state's six thousand miles of rail lines would be better accessed by farmers if local roads were always passable. Paralleling a national Good Roads Train that had been implemented in the Illinois Central Railroad in 1901, in 1904 the St. Louis and San Francisco, or Frisco, created a similar excursion train in Oklahoma Territory and helped build demonstration roads in various places around the state. Such publicity campaigns and lobbying conducted in 1906-07 by the territorial Oklahoma Good Roads Association (the Oklahoma-Indian Territory organization having been renamed in 1906 with Sidney Suggs as president) and a plethora of town-based groups had significant effect. Good-roads advocates convinced the framers of the state constitution to direct the legislature to create a highway department among the divisions of government. It was established in 1911, with Suggs as its first commissioner.

The first result of the Good Roads Association's six-year effort came with the state's first road improvement project, conducted in 1908 near Watonga, in Blaine County. Two roads that accessed the town were virtually impassable at harvest time, and local farmers took their crops to nearby Geary instead. The federal Office of Public Roads provided an engineer for the Watonga project, and he surveyed the route, laid out the plan, and directed farmers and township officers in laying a sand-clay roadway, at that time a standard surface. Other towns, such as Chandler and Cordell, followed suit. In 1909 the legislature empowered counties to create road improvement districts.

Although by late-twentieth-century standards the county highways seemed terribly inadequate, the impetus provided by the Good Roads Association's activities brought about better rural roads. As a result, dispersed communities and farmers had better access to railroads, businesses in towns had more customers, and farm property adjacent to improved roads became more valuable. Thus, good roads improved economic opportunity for everyone.

A precedent was set for government and citizen cooperation, and within less than a decade a state highway system developed. Soon afterward, hard-surfaced roads of asphalt, brick, and concrete were being built to accommodate trucks and cars, and the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 provided leadership and matching funds for statewide road construction. As automobiles multiplied and drivers demanded better roads, Oklahomans like Cyrus Avery of Tulsa and members of the Ozark Trails Association, the Meridian Highway Association, and other groups, began to promote individual highway development as part of a national highway system. Good Roads Associations began to fade from the scene in the late 1920s as the federal, state, and county governments took responsibility for maintaining public thoroughfares.

SEE ALSO: CYRUS STEVENS AVERY, HIGHWAYS, TRANSPORTATION, TURNPIKES AND TOLL BRIDGES.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Michael Cassity, Route 66 Corridor National Historic Context Study (Santa Fe, N. Mex.: National Park Service National Trails System Office, 2004). William P. Corbett, "Men, Mud, and Mules: The Good Roads Movement in Oklahoma, 1900-1910," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 58 (Summer 1980). William P. Corbett, "Oklahoma Highways: Indian Trails to Urban Expressways" (Ph.D. diss, Oklahoma State University 1982). Richard F. Weingroff, Milestones for U.S. Highway Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 1996).

Dianna Everett

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