“If a man has good corn or wood or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house....”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
From upgrades to the intersections of Interstate 20 and Bobby Jones Expressway a few years ago to miles of roads – including the River Watch Parkway extension – waiting to be paved or built today, the cry for better thoroughfares in Columbia County is nothing new.
Our collective hearts might be saddened by the devastation to both public and private landscaping along Old Evans and Old Petersburg roads, but there is no comparison between how this work is accomplished now and the way it was done when the county and her road-building system were both brand new.
Business was brisk at Columbia County’s new courthouse in the early decades of the 19th century. Taxes were collected inside the brick building in the center of Appling, the newly-named county seat; candidates for all levels of government were chosen there on election day; and court proceedings were carried out in the new courtroom just past the clerk’s office on the main floor.
It was the Columbia County Commission who made the most use of their proud, new facility, and of all the business they transacted there, no item appeared more often on the agenda than something to do with roads for that steady stream of new residents even then moving into the county. Tax revenues couldn’t begin to cover the cost, so with little or no government assistance, our ancestors had to devise a plan to fund, build and maintain those miles of mainly rural roads themselves.
Once the commissioners made the decision to construct a road, they chose three road commissioners to oversee building each minor road or portion of a major one. The county then appropriated funds for the materials, but labor was the responsibility of the person whose property the road passed by. If you owned a half-mile of property, for example, you and/or your “crew” were responsible for building and maintaining that much of the road. For roads not bordered by private property, all able-bodied male citizens in the county were required to give 12 days of labor a year to keep those roadways open.
Lest we become romantics and begin a campaign to revive those good-old, public-servant days, I must tell you that this plan was not as effective as it sounds. Those road-dominated Commission meetings often became high-spirited discussions on how to get this work done without depending on the undependable to do it. According to historian Pearl Baker, besides extra tax money to hire the work done, the method the Commissioners chose has a familiar ring: “County roads were both built and maintained according to the ‘loudest wheel’ system.”
Assuming Baker was paraphrasing the adage, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” maybe those who are pining for more tar and less mud and dust past their homes today should make more noise, or cry more tears about the noise their vehicles make after being driven for years on perpetually bumpy roads.
Even the worst county roads today are better than the glorified paths our forefathers were happy just to get a wagon through. You could be driving your vehicle over an even bumpier “corduroy road,” made of uneven and frequently unanchored logs laid across a swamp to serve as a makeshift bridge
And you could forget about getting anywhere fast. A trip from Augusta to Savannah would have taken you two to four days, even longer if rains had muddied the surface or raised the level of the swamps. Also, whether by required labor or as a hired hand, you would have built those miles of road with pick and shovel, driven a horse-drawn road scraper, and alternated between tugging your stuck boots and equipment out of the mud, or choking on the dust of a hot, dry Georgia day.