Anoka County history: Highway department – then, now

I have been doing a lot of research on the growth of Anoka County government from the 1920s to the present. There is enough interesting information to write several articles.

We all know the growth was very large. Before World War II, Anoka’s population was under 4,000, Columbia Heights was under 5,000, Centerville was about 300, St. Francis was about 200, Anoka Township (now Coon Rapids) was about 350 people, Blaine and Fridley each had about 300 people.

Today with about 350,000 in population we compete with Dakota County for third place behind Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

I’ll start with the highway department, since that is where I got my first summer job in 1940 when I was 16 years old. Everything was at the courthouse except the highway maintenance shop. It was an old barn on the northwest corner of what is now the intersection of Bunker Lake Road and Highway 47 in Ramsey Township.

Harold Blewett was the County Engineer and his office was in the courthouse. Ray Sanderson, maintenance foreman, and Frank Gabrick, mechanic, were the only two in people in the maintenance shop. George Miller was road crew foreman with Sandy Broadbent and six others on the road crew. All the roads were gravel. They were just starting to lay blacktop, about a mile per year.

In the early 1940s, my father, Frank Ward was county commissioner from Anoka and Floyd Julkowski was the commissioner from Columbia Heights. They always joked about whose turn, among the other three rural commissioners, it was to get one mile of blacktop each year.

At that time the county had two graders, a road mucker, two trucks, and two cats. There were no snow plows. Snowplowing was done by milk truckers on contract.

While there are a handful of gravel roads in the county today, none of the roads that Anoka County maintains are gravel. But there are 420 miles of paved roads under the county’s jurisdiction (1,500 counting four lane highways). There are also 130 trucks and other equipment. There are now 28 snow plows.

I had a nice interview with Doug Fischer, our county highway engineer since 2002. We have had seven other men precede him. Harold Thurston 1916 to 1920, H. B. Childs 1920 to 1923, Harold Blewett 1923 to 1951, Everett Vevea 1951 to 1957, Erling Lundholm 1957 to 1974, Paul Ruud 1974 to 1994, and Jon Olson 1994 to 2002.

He has 107 fulltime employees and close to 40 seasonal part time employees under his direction. Doug also has Andrew Witter (PE) assistant engineer, Charles Cadenhead (PE) construction engineer, and Jim Christenson (PE) maintenance engineer.

There is so much more to write about in Doug Fischer’s huge highway department. It’s my guess it is the best in the state.

Editor’s note: Tom Ward is a member of the Anoka County Historical Society board of directors.

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