Days of gravel and dust
An account in the Sunday paper by Mark Bushnell about the arrival of automobiles in Vermont was a reminder that, even a couple of decades after the period he described, roads in Vermont were still what today would be called primitive.
In the ’30s our family lived in Londonderry on a farm that bordered on Route 11. That road was entirely gravel. My family often went shopping in Chester, and the gravel surface meant that speeds rarely went above 35 mph — and that rate was considered speedy. At least it was well drained, so that during mud season in the springtime there would be occasional ruts, but no soft places where a car’s wheels would sink halfway or more beyond the surface.
Once our grade school was taking a trip to Springfield. From the Thompsonville section of Londonderry northward there was a straight stretch of two or three miles. The mother of one of the pupils was the driver, and on reaching that section of the road she said: “Now children, look at the speedometer, because you’ll see it get up to 40, and that’s the only time it will get that high during the trip.”
There was a man with a dump truck who was hired by the state Highway Department to care for the main roads in our area. He would hitch the truck to a grader that had a slanted blade and drag it along the road to smooth the surface. An assistant riding on the grader would raise or lower the blade according to what was needed on the surface.
A trip from Londonderry to Rutland was a long day’s journey. Practically all the distance was on gravel. That meant speeds hardly ever above 35. Also, in dry summer weather great clouds of dust would be kicked up by the automobile. If you saw a vehicle approaching you rolled up the windows of your car until you had passed through the dust clouds.
Route 103 ended where it met Route 7 at a junction called Pierce’s Corner in Clarendon. And that point always provided a sensation, because Route 7 from that point into Rutland was paved with cement. It was like driving on a superhighway. If your car was in good shape you could get up to speeds of 50 mph. The return trip always began in similar luxury until you reached where Route 103 branched off. After that it was back to the gravel-road speeds the rest of the way home.
In those days each town sent a single member to the Vermont House. Emery Melendy was the member from Londonderry. He became chairman of the House Highway Committee and thus persuaded the state Highway Department to give Route 11 a blacktop surface.
It was considered a luxury to be able to drive on a hard surface from Londonderry to Chester, or from Londonderry to South Londonderry. And in a couple of years there was a hard surface from Londonderry to Manchester.
Hard-surface driving is taken for granted on main roads these days, but back in the ’30s it was considered unique.
Kendall Wild is a retired Herald editor.