In praise of Michigan’s plank roads

September 7, 1995


ANN ARBOR—A plank road can help a farmer get his goods to market, allow him to get to church on Sunday, readily obtain medical services and improve the looks, dress and manners of his family. So says the September 1854 issue of The Farmer’s Companion and Horticultural Gazette, one of more than 50 million manuscript items in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

Plank roads were exactly that, says Thomas Gillespie of U-M’s Transportation Research Institute. In fact, there were several kinds of wooden roads. ” There were roads made of wooden blocks,” Gillespie says, ” but even more common were roads paved with logs, resulting in what was called ‘corduroy’ roads for obvious reasons.”

And then there were those plank roads, planed planks placed crosswise on the roadways with their edges resting on another piece of timber. Often the planks were treated with tar or pitch to resist rotting, Gillespie says, but they were still subject to ” rutting” caused by continual and heavily-loaded wagon traffic.

There were asphalt or macadam road surfaces in the early 1800s, Gillespie says, but plank roads came into common use across the country by the mid-1800s; one of the earliest being found in London, England, in 1839.

But these plank roads in Michigan were a godsend to the state’s farmers who often had difficulty getting their farm products to market. One Wayne County farmer reported that the roads were impassable for a large portion of the year and most of his profit was swallowed up in carrying his produce to Detroit if he could get it there at all. The editors of the 1854 Gazette suggests that property near a plank road enjoyed an immediate rise in price. ” A farm adjacent to a plank road increases in value from 10-15 percent,” the Gazette says, ” and commands a sale from the fact that the produce never lacks a market, and has a more regular and higher net value.”

Before plank roads, vegetables, fruit, pumpkins, corn stalks and fall apples, brought little money when sold in small, nearby villages, where there was little demand. But with access to plank roads, the produce could be sold in larger markets bringing in higher prices. And the wear and tear on the farmer’s horses, harness and vehicle when traveling a plank road was reduced by nearly half. ” The tolls not only pay themselves in this saving,” the Gazette editor wrote, ” but even leave a surplus in the pocket of the farmer, which would otherwise have been spent on repairs. Horseshoes last twice the time.”

Farmers preferred to pay the tolls rather than have to rub down horses after traveling on an unimproved road or mud and dust and mire.

Other advantages of plank roads, says the Gazette, included getting to church with regularity, living with more ” friendliness” with neighbors, and meeting people of like pursuits more frequently to converse on current prices, and improved modes of farming. In cases where family members were ill or injured, the physician, too, could more readily get to the family farm.

One proponent of plank roads observed that not only does the farmer have ready access to markets, save on labor and equipment, but that ” the people, too, are changed, dress better, look better—their manners are better. Their wives and daughters are no longer the same persons. They have improved wonderfully. Such are the results that have in every instance attended the introduction of plank roads.”

The Bentley Historical Library on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus is open Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.