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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Raymond Shute, June 25, 1982. Interview B-0054-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The development of a road and highway system in North Carolina

Shute discusses the development of a road and highway system in North Carolina. North Carolina began as a state where residents had to maintain the stretch of road in front of their homes, and became known as the Good Roads State because it devoted so much state money to building and maintaining roads. Shute describes that evolution here.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Raymond Shute, June 25, 1982. Interview B-0054-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

About that time, too, the county government especially began to reorganize the system of building roads … JOHN RAYMOND SHUTE, Jr.: Right, right.
… and a lot of people would come and petition to have a private road declared a public road. JOHN RAYMOND SHUTE, Jr.: Right.
And then you could call people out for a two-mile radius along the road to work on it. Do you have any sense of how the merchants in town felt about that? JOHN RAYMOND SHUTE, Jr.: The merchants were in favor of roads and good roads—all-weather roads, they were called—where the farmer could bring his cotton to town to the market and carry his supplies back without getting hub-deep in mud in the wintertime and covered with dust in the summertime. But the road business reflects the history of a county and a community. Later on, after the state highway system was developed, you can tell the counties that had members of the State Highway Commission, because they had more good roads emanating from their county seats out into rural areas to bring those people into, say, Wadesboro instead of Monroe. You had that sort of thing, which I presume was more or less natural. But the building of roads is in itself a special field of study that would be very good for somebody to get into. It went through an evolutionary period. First were the landowners themselves. Said Bill, "Let's improve the road by your farm and mine to the church." And their sons and they would go out and work up a fairly passable road. They ran into problems when they got to streams, because they didn't know too much about bridge-building. They usually had fords. Then that went on, and then Tom Jones on the other side of the church decided, "Is it all right if I extend this road down across my property? I'll, of course, keep it up." Yeah, it was all right, unless he was a bad character, and that wouldn't be often. So this sort of thing. You developed a bunch of purely private roads, you might say. Then later on, this thought was extended by these people who were maintaining the roads going before the county commissioners and asking for financial help. Maybe they'd give them a couple hundred dollars to keep up a certain piece of road. There was a period when each man was required to keep up the road in front of his own property. It went through that period, which seems logical enough. You run into the question of children growing up and marrying and moving away, and the old man and his wife being left there with the responsibility of maintaining a road, which he was no longer physically able to do, and he'd have to go out and hire somebody to do it. Then it became a hardship, you see. There were so many problems like that that arose that you pretty soon developed the desire to have the county take over all public roads, so they established what was called a road commission on a countywide basis. The county took over certain numbers of the roads; some of them they didn't. They would come before the commissioners and apply for their road to be taken over as a public road. In the early days, we had chain gangs. These prisons were operated by the county, and they called it that because the convicts that received sentences had chains that went down to their ankles from their waists to keep them from running away. In the early days, these members of the chain gang were required to work on these county roads. That's where the labor came from. There was a superintendent of roads under the county road commission who had charge of these workers, and they had guards with rifles. You probably have seen pictures of them. It's rather pathetic thing, in a way, and there were a lot of people… I remember, as a young man, one friend of mine particularly. As we would be riding out in the country, we would pass, maybe, a gang of these fellows working on the road. He was a person who smoked cigarettes. He would always reach in his pocket and get his pack of cigarettes and throw it out to these convicts, every time he'd pass them. It struck me as a rather humane sort of an attitude to establish towards these people. They had no chance to buy cigarettes, because they had no money. But that was the way the road system worked in the early period, and then the evolution from that phase into a state highway system came along, and then you went through it on a statewide basis. For a long period of time, North Carolina was known as "The Good Roads State," because it was the first state ever to float a bond issue of the magnitude that we did. It seems to me like it was $400 million dollars, which was almost an unheard of amount of money, that the state floated bonds for to build. The idea was to connect every county seat in North Carolina with an all-weather road, usually paved. The first chairman of the highway commission was a fellow Page from down in Moore County, who later was associated with the Page Trust Company. That was a banking chain that was wiped out in the Great Depression. Just like the state school system that Governor Aycock established, the road system achieved national importance because it was significant, I mean the extent to which we went into it. The evolution of the highway system in North Carolina would make an excellent study for some student getting a master's degree, to have a study in depth of the system itself, because it's a fascinating thing. And as roads are built, communities develop. Transportation is the life of trade, both local and otherwise, so these roads became quite important.