Anoka County History: Good roads convention a first of its kind

In September of 1913 an unusual convention was held in Anoka, one of the first of its kind in the country. Delegates from all the Anoka County townships met to discuss building a network of new highways throughout the county. The local foment for better roads was part of the nationwide Good Roads movement, which got its start around 1880, largely under the impetus of the League of American Wheelmen, a bicycling advocacy group seeking greater usability for the new fangled two-wheelers. By the early 20th century, however, the loudest Good Roads voices were automobile owners, as well as farmers who wanted to more easily carry their goods to market.

The meeting delegates had been elected from their various communities on September 13 and convened on September 19. Several questions were in the air. First, did the county want a few main roads, or a larger network of roads that would reach almost everyone?  Sentiment was overwhelmingly for the latter. Next, just exactly which roads would be built? Finally, how would the effort be paid for?

One proposal was to issue $500,000 in bonds and build a system as quickly as possible. However, that extravagant sum was too rich for the delegates. That doesn’t seem like much money — it’s about $12 million in today’s dollars — but, considering the lower population and larger family size at the time, it was not an obligation to be taken on lightly. Instead, most of the towns agreed to increase their mill rates and thereby raise, with available state aid under new legislation, $70,000 per year for the project.

Each delegate was invited to draw, on a large wall map, 15 miles of road that would most benefit his region. When the map was complete, there was a reasonable network blanketing the county, and the effort was underway. Under the new system, no place in the county would be more than four miles for a road, at least a gravel road if not an improved highway of macadam.

One way to minimize the cost, or to maximize to impact of $70,000, was to enlist as much citizen effort, and other low-cost effort, as possible. For example, it was proposed that farmers be paid a dollar a load to pick up rock from where it was quarried and carry it to roadways where it would be used. Some of the rock-breaking could be done by convicts from St. Cloud, thereby getting good civic use from these “vagrants and disorderly folk,” as the newspaper described them.

As is the case today, almost everyone was anxious to have infrastructure but not everyone was excited about paying for it. In January 1914, the county auditor was kept busy explaining the increase in the tax bills that had been mailed out, and a Union article described in some detail what the new amounts were and how they were determined.

Throughout the 1910s there were annual Good Roads days, in June, during which citizens turned out to forward the highway-building effort. This was a state-wide effort, designated in some of those years by governor’s proclamation, but Anoka County boasted of being a leader in turning out workers. For example, on June 15, 1915, the communities competed to see which could roust up the biggest crews and complete the most roadway. Cedar took the first place prize, followed by Norris Lake and Andover. By one count 824 men, maybe more, showed up to grade and spread cinders. That’s an impressive turnout for a county with a total population around 15,000. The paper had promised to recognize every worker, but they couldn’t fit them all in one issues, and had to continue listing names over several weeks.

Recognition by name went to the men who worked, but only minor recognition went to women who cooked meals and possibly did other work.

John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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