In 1918, this Ford Model T was stuck in the muddy ruts of Old US 12, which is currently called I-94.
Public roads may be the one link that connects all Michigan residents and visitors. Whether you are a licensed driver or not, roads, bridges, and streets are a vital part of getting where you need to go. Can you imagine if you were responsible for maintaining and improving roads yourself? Over 100 years ago, that was the case.
In 1805, General William Hull, the territorial governor, created the first road districts. The first state constitution encouraged state involvement in internal improvements like roads, but the Panic of 1837 (an early financial crisis) devastated our new state’s efforts. Private construction companies took over and built plank roads that were funded by tolls and driver investment. As time passed, the plank infrastructure began to warp and rot, leading to their removal and replacement with gravel roads.
Townships in 1850 maintained and built streets using the “Statute Labor System,” where an able-bodied man living in the local road district was expected to pay his road taxes by performing thirty days of labor on the roads. The road work was done under the supervision of the township road overseer.
In 1913, the legislature passed the State Trunk Line Act, which was established to create a 3,000-mile road system to be built by the townships and counties. Michigan residents were encouraged to get out and help improve the quality of their roads, with the state paying anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per project, depending on the type of road being built. Great enthusiasm greeted the Trunk Line Highway Act, and led to the first Road Bee Day in Michigan.
The Huron Road Association set aside June 13, 1913, for a day of road repairs. That day, 5,000 men, 200 women, 3,000 teams of horses and 750 automobiles participated. Their efforts improved over 200 miles of roads. Throughout the day, residents raked and hauled gravel, removed objects of interference, and smoothed the dirt and clay. What was supposed to be a one-day event soon turned into a full-week event of road repairs.
Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, the Michigan Governor in 1914, thought Road Bee Day was such a great success that he implemented a state wide Road Bee Day, encouraging the rural Michigan residents to get out and put in extra hours cleaning and fixing the local road systems.
Many citizens take for granted the luxuries we have today, such as paved roads; those who live on gravel roads understand the troubles of road maintenance, especially after a long storm. Nearly 73 percent of our roads today are maintained by professional engineers, road workers, and other staff members of the county road departments.
Looking back in history allows us to not take our paved roads and intricate highway systems for granted. It does allow us to recognize how far Michigan’s county road system has come. Although we may have potholes because of the wonderful weather in our state, the Michigan county road system has come a long way in terms of making sure our roads are in safe driving condition.