"County roads were built and maintained according to the 'loudest wheel' system. That is, the more 'high-spirited' the request, the quicker you were likely to get your road."
- Former local historian Pearl Baker
As newly-elected President Obama attempts to reconcile his campaign promises with the realities of the current economy, and Gov. Sonny Perdue and our own county commissioners weigh state and local needs against the monies in their respective treasuries, I thought it might be interesting to contrast what many Americans consider government entitlements today with the realities of the past.
Specifically, what was on that "entitlement list" for the early citizens of Columbia County?
In theory, whether by rule of one (monarchy), the few (aristocracy) or the many (democracy), the primary function of government is to secure the common good for those over whom it exercises order or control. In a democracy, "good" implies protection of life and property in times of calamity, war or civil unrest, and the delivery of such services as the citizens deem essential - and are willing through taxation to fund.
In early Georgia, says former Cobb County Commission Chairman Ernest Barrett, "The government did little more for its citizens than scrape their roads, file their deeds, and conduct their elections."
Few of us would choose so sparse a government today. We want roads that are tarred, wide and free of potholes - and about as many other amenities as our imaginations and strained treasuries will allow.
But unlike the mammoth operation - and price tag - of the new flyovers at Interstate 20 and Bobby Jones Expressway, other than making "high spirited" requests (see above) for even a passable dirt road in early Columbia County, how do you suppose those thoroughfares were built?
Since local tax revenues couldn't begin to cover the cost of road building 200 years ago, and assistance from the state government was sparse to none, our ancestors had to devise a way to fund, build and maintain those miles of rural roads themselves.
Once a decision was made to construct a road, three road commissioners were chosen to oversee both the building and upkeep of each minor road or portion of a major route. The county then appropriated funds for materials, but labor was the responsibility of those whose property the road passed by.
For example, if you owned a half-mile of property, you were responsible to build and care for 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 the 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 was not as effective as it sounds, and many a Commission meeting dissolved into a high-spirited discussion on how to get this work done without depending on the undependable to do it.
So, does this explain the creeping regulations, the rising price tags, the vanishing line between necessity, entitlement and desire, to say nothing of the rising cost of healthcare to cure the headaches all this spendin' and decidin' costs? Well, maybe there's another "contrast" to consider on this subject:
Whether you are waiting for a paving crew to improve the quality of your road, or bemoaning the ever-rising cost of maintaining our entire infrastructure, you might want to count your blessings. 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 for 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 who did show up for work 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-four days - longer if recent rains had muddied the surface or raised the level of the swamps. And whether by required labor or as a hired hand, you would have built those miles of road with a pick and shovel, driven a horse-drawn road scraper, and alternated between tugging your boots and equipment out of the mud or choking on the dust of a hot, dry, Georgia day.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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