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Column: Even before Nobles County, there were roads here

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared March 10, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — Fifty years ago. Fifty years ago was 1957. Sure. Fifty years ago we were writing news stories about lawmakers coming to Worthington for breakfasts and talking about roads and highways. Lawmakers talking highways must be the oldest news story. The cast half-a-century ago was Don Rickers, Jim Wychor, Lew Hudson. Sen. John Olson, Rep. Wayne Bassett, Rep. Francis Judge. In a time even before that, newspapers called lawmakers “solons.” (Wise statesmen.) Headlines read, “Solons Discuss Roads Here,” “Solons Say Funds Going to Twin Cities.” We have been at this business of building roads for 90 years.

Oh, erase. Wrong. We have been at it forever.

Even before there was a Nobles County, there were two military roads that crossed the region. One ran from Jackson to Yankton.

Nobles County was named for Col. William Nobles, who (1856), a road he envisioned from Fort Ridgeley to California.

Benjamin Woolstencroft. In 1871, Benjamin Woolstencroft of the Graham Lakes area was elected Nobles County’s first surveyor. County commissioners did not have even a place to meet, but they decided they wanted a road into northwest Nobles County to lure more settlers.

The American pattern was to plat a road along each side of each square mile. Ben Woolstencroft remembered, “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.” So it was that he surveyed his new Nobles County road from the southeast corner to the northwest corner of each section, creating a diagonal road, one of the few of its kind. Nobles County’s Diagonal Road (Highway 266) remains to this day.

I was saying 90 years ago. Ninety years ago — 1917 — when roads were mud and ruts, the Nobles County board took a bold step. It was decided to build a wide, straight gravel road between Worthington and Adrian.

The Globe reporter was on the scene. He said the roadbed was 24 feet wide and they were spreading gravel six inches deep across 18 feet.

“Two motor trucks and eight wagons are now working on the job. Each truck hauls 4.5 yards of gravel to a load and each makes 11 trips a day … The trucks bowl right along with this load — 11 tons in all — at a rate of 15 miles an hour.”

Two years later, the county board decided to issue bonds and to begin laying concrete for the first time. They authorized paving from Worthington west toward Adrian for two miles. Then a gravel stretch nearly to Rushmore. Then 3.5 additional miles of paving. Veterans returning from World War I were among the men hired for this pioneer project with concrete.

I once talked with Walt Roelofs at Lismore. One of Walt’s first memories was watching the construction of the road from Ellsworth to Lismore — Highway 91 today.

“We lived four miles north of town.” Walt recalled. “They had maybe 50 or 60 head of horses and mules for the road work. Mostly mules. They made a racket when they stopped. This was — between 1915 and 1920.

“The following year — they didn’t get it all done, all the way to Ellsworth, and they came back the following year and graveled it.

“They shoveled the gravel on by hand. They had a dump wagon and six mules — two wagons hitched together. I remember we went to the gravel pit a couple of times.

“A bunch of fellows would help the mules get out of the gravel pit, help them get started. Once they started to go they were all right. They had one and a-half yards, maybe two yards on a wagon. They camped at Lou Obele’s. That was where the pit was, too.

“They had elevator graders. They probably had — maybe 20 of those. A lot of them. There was a big belt that elevated the gravel on the roadbed and dropped it.

“Mules and all, they did the job. They got done.”

Walt had another special memory of that road a decade later:

“I remember the dust storms. There were times when you couldn’t see the house from the barn. The dirt would blow. One day it would blow one way, the next day the other. There were banks on the road, like snowbanks. Model-Ts got stuck in the dust.”

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