Early Dirt Roads and Road Development

The Iowa farmer cannot haul to market when the market is high. He must haul to market when the roads are dry.

-Author Unknown, circa 1900

‘The Better the Soil, the Poorer the Roads’

Before automobiles, most roads were just plain dirt. In 1904 Iowa had 102,448 miles of road. Only Missouri and Texas had more miles of road. The problem was that only 1.62 percent of those roads were surfaced with gravel or other materials. This left 98.38 percent of Iowa’s roads as plain dirt. When dry and properly dragged—made level and smooth—Iowa's dirt roads were excellent highways. But no matter how good the roads in dry weather, in wet seasons dirt roads became too muddy for travel.

The Automobile Changes Everything

In 1900 about 20 to 30 automobiles per day might travel over a road at no more than eight miles per hour. By 1920, however, the number of cars on that same road increased to 750 each day, traveling at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. While two tons was the heaviest load in 1900, trucks in 1920 could haul loads of 10 to 14 tons. Yet, the road had changed very little.

A Messy Football Game

In 1922 after an Iowa-Minnesota football game at Iowa City, thousands of football fans started for home. Before the game ended, a steady rain had begun to fall. As the cars full of happy fans moved along the muddy dirt roads out of the city, a huge traffic jam developed. Motorists without chains on their tires bogged down in the mud. Unable to move, hundreds spent the night in their cars or at nearby farmhouses.

Production and Transport Slowed by Dirt Roads

It was not just pleasure drivers who found Iowa roads a serious problem. Early bus lines and trucking companies ran into major travel problems. When it rained, roads washed out or gummed up. Passengers and deliveries just had to wait to get through. During winter some roads became impassable due to snow drifts. When this happened, everyone had to wait until the snow melted before they could use that road again. The problem was especially important to farmers. Farm production had improved over the years. Farmers needed reliable roads to get this large amount of produce to the market without delays.

Who Should Pay for Roads?

Most Iowans agreed that good roads were needed. The problem was deciding who would pay for the improvements. Before automobiles, landowners had been responsible for the roads that ran beside their property. This worked rather well when people mainly used roads near their farms. But when the road was to be used by anybody, from anywhere, the landowners no longer wanted to pay for or do the work to keep the road in good condition. Even though they would have benefited from it greatly, farmers were often opposed to the Good Roads Movement. Most of the cost for better roads was levied on farmland, so farmer often wanted things left unchanged. The state decided that people who used the roads should pay a share of the cost. Automobile license fees and gasoline taxes helped to provide the money to get Iowa out of the mud.

Improvement to Roads

Gravel had been considered a good road surface until automobiles came. But the weight and speed of cars loosened the gravel and pushed it down into the dirt or off to the side of the road. Gravel was fine for less-used roads, but on main highways concrete was the best surface. Concrete cost more than other surfaces, but it held up well. Tests had proven that tires wore out five times faster on gravel than on concrete. Rough, bumpy roads caused damage and breakdowns. It cost less money per mile to operate a car on a concrete, paved road than on dirt or gravel.The first concrete paved road in the state was a half block of paving in LeMars in 1904. The first two cities connected with paving were Mason City and Clear Lake in 1918. In 1920 when Iowa had 407,578 cars registered, there were just 25 miles of paved road outside cities and towns. Throughout the 1920s Iowa pushed to raise money and build a better road system. The state planned a road network of hard surface roads linking all the counties. By the end of 1931 the network was completed and the Highway Commission proudly announced that Iowa was no longer a mud road state. The Highway Commission, started in 1904 in Ames with a purpose to study and fix the "road problem in Iowa," in 1975 became the Department of Transportation.

More Improvements Still Needed

The goal to provide a surfaced road to every rural home was still far away. Reaching this goal meant paving another 90,000 miles of roads. Road problems could not be solved quickly because the number of cars in use increased at such a fast rate. By World War II, over 5,000 miles of primary roads in Iowa were paved. In the 1950s when the national interstate highway system began, it was decided nationally that Iowa was going to link in with the network. The highway provided a high-speed road with no crossroads to cause stopping. It bypassed towns and often shortened the distance to be traveled. The interstate system helped decrease long-distance travel time. It took until the mid-1970s before Iowa could say its country roads were in good shape.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Pulling Out of the Mud,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 2 (November 1982): 10-11.