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Our Road

When we inherited the farm, along with it came a 3/8ths of a mile long road. Parts of it were steep, one section was winding/hilly with a blind curve, and other parts were flat. The road was on an easement across the properties of at least a couple of adjoining neighbors' plots. It was very private, very necessary to daily life, pretty, fun to run up and down - and lots of work to maintain. It was well placed so no parts were ever under water. In wet Springs, a shallow pond would form alongside a flat stretch of it, and one year a pair of mallards settled there and raised some ducklings before departing forever. This springtime-only wetland had some small trees in the middle that afforded wild things a little cover, and bullfrogs with loud nightly voices found this wet place a favorite spot. 

The road was originally gravel. When you have a gravel road in St. Louis County, Missouri, you can count on a strange yearly phenomenon. In early Spring, when the ground freezes and thaws a bunch for the last time, the earth starts absorbing the rock and mud starts coming up where there was once rock. To solve this problem, we would have loads of fist-size new rock hauled in and spread over the road. Sometimes we got smaller rock (large gravel) to cover up the bigger stuff. In long, wet Springs, we might have to have loads hauled in more than once. The rock was hard on tires and in time on our cars' power steering too. Of course, after the cars and trucks had driven over the road for a while, the center part developed a high crown that had to be graded down level. You never had to worry about a Corvette or other low-slung type taking your gravel road too fast. Neither would you fall asleep driving it yourself, as the rocks would bounce up against the bottom of the car. After new rock was hauled in, it took extra power to drive over it until it was packed down by the traffic. 

The gravel on the road more than once gave me an education in my teen years. The following story I sent to the ATIS email list for antique tractor folks a while back provides an example.  The occasion was attempting to horse around a wagon stacked heavy with baled hay using a Ford 8N (a light tractor) when most of my sparse experience had been with larger tractors: 

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"When I pulled into our gravel road, I had a little trouble getting enough traction to climb the short hill where it started. Somehow it got just enough traction to get up (in second gear I think). Trouble is, like most hills, it had a down slope as well, and at the bottom there was a fast 90 degree bend in the road. When I got about 1/2 of the way down, the hay wanted to go faster, and I wanted to go slower. No problem, I thought, just use the brakes like on the main road. Then came surprize city and hauling lesson #29 for young drivers -- on a steep grade covered with rock, the rear locked wheels on a light tractor being pushed by a heavy wagon are more decorative than functional.

I somehow zipped around the bend at the bottom with the swaying hay and two nervous hay hands on the top of it - but just barely. But I did not drive the hay wagon for a while after that.

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Eventually, we were able to have the road paved, and this was a big event in our lives. Gone were the clouds of dust following vehicles into the farmstead in Summer to settle on the house and other buildings. The cars were clean for a change, and the tires seemed to last longer. Of course, it also made it possible to navigate the road at a much faster speed. Having our own little test track, some of us became wild and fast drivers for for a few years. Then, one day two of the family cars met in the middle of the blind curve in a head-on collision that put a family friend riding in one car in the hospital. This was not a happy time for us, the friend or our car insurance man. This episode slowed us down a bit.  It also led to a farm rule to honk when coming to the blind curve. 

When you put a flat ribbon of asphault between adjoining fields and ride a bike up and down it to get the mail, you learn your wildlife a bit better. It was this way that I met my first snapping turtle and saw more rabbits and snakes than had ever been noticeable before the road was paved. I also noticed bluebirds and other winged friends that I had missed when trying to guide a bike on the easiest path over the rocks of the previous non-pavement. 

Perhaps the biggest source of work in relation to the road was the clearing of snow. We had a short stretch that was cut beneath the surrounding ground, and by chance this was also the place where snow drifted the worst. Every Fall we would put up a snow fence alongside this piece and every Spring take it down again. That was the easy part. The hard part was getting out of a warm bed to fire up the John Deere and going out in a biting wind to move the snow about. In the bad stretch mentioned above, the snow could drift up to four feet above the road surface. My John Deere 530 with a mounted blade could stay ahead of this if I got out early and often to plow, and we did not have a heavy, wet snow and lots of wind. When a real blizzard struck, we had to call in a big tractor. Many of these we not up to the task either. We eventually found that the best job on clearing a bad snow was done by a smooth treaded Caterpillar with a front bucket. A Cat (don't know if it was a D2 or D4) beat the pants off the wheeled tractors or trucks in cleaning out wet drifts in a hurry. The hourly charge was awful, but the price per job was not much worse. 

In the summer, the road had to be mowed. When I got a 6-ft. rotary mower for the tractor, this was a pretty easy task that paid handsome rewards. In the summer our private highway was often gorgeous. I sometimes would mow way out on both sides of the road, and when the rolling hills around the farm were planted with beans or hay, the place looked great. Although I have not mowed a road for years and no longer have a tractor with a sickle bar or rotary mower - I still like to drive out into gently rolling country where the locals keep the roads and pastures cleanly mowed all summer long.


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