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 on the Interstate to miles of dirt roads waiting to be paved, the cry for better thoroughfares in Columbia County is nothing new. Theres no comparison, however, between the way this work is accomplished today and how it was done when the county and her road system were both brand new.
Business was brisk at Columbia Countys 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 office were chosen there on election day, and court proceedings were carried out in the new courtroom just past the clerks office on the main floor.
But it was the Columbia County Commission who made the most use of their proud, new facility, and of all the business they transacted, no item appeared more often on the agenda than something to do with roads for all those new residents even then moving into the county. Tax revenues couldnt begin to cover the cost, and with little or no government assistance, our ancestors had to devise a plan to fund, build and maintain those miles of mainly rural roads.
Once the commissioners made the decision to construct a road, they chose three road commissioners to oversee the building of each minor road or portion of a major one. (Major roads in those days included the former Indian paths that became Washington and Wrightsboro Roads, and the Old Quaker Road which ran from Wrightsboro to Waynesboro and beyond.) The county 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 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 return to those good-old, public-servant days, I must tell you this plan wasnt 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 appropriating more (tax) money to hire the work done, the method the Ccmmissioners 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.
Incidentally, while youre waiting for the paving crew you may want to count your blessings that 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 un-anchored logs laid across a swamp like a makeshift bridge. You also might have been subject to boulder-in-the-road syndrome. With no dynamite or bulldozer on the scene, those 12-day-a-year volunteers hacked out a passage around obstacles the best way they could.
And you could forget about getting anywhere fast. A trip from Augusta to Savannah would have taken you two to four days, longer if rains had muddied the surface or raised the level of the swamps.
Whether by required labor or as a hired hand, you would have built those miles of road with a pick and a shovel, driven a horse-drawn road scraper, and alternated between tugging your boots and equipment out of the mud, and choking on the dust of a hot, dry, Georgia day.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. Todays column is an excerpt from As Long As the Rivers Run, a work in progress on the history of Columbia County. E-mail comments to seabara@ aol.com.)
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