The horse-pulled road scrapers of summer

WHEN the summer tourist abounds in good supply, our State of Maine highway people begin road repairs in earnest, and in making ready for this season's havoc a backhoe and loader is parked in the bushes yonder. For a couple of months the wandering motorists will do well to avoid Route 97 and depart into their own country another way. When I saw this machine, it was my thought to steal it and see what happens. I beg a moment to explain this: When I was 14, I became gainfully employed. There were no laws then to label me as child labor, so I was apprenticed to three strapping and experienced men, thus completing a crew of four which loaded gravel into tipcarts in the town gravel pit. The road commissioner of our town was doing me a favor because my father had supported him politically in the elections. Neither was there anything on the books about minimum wages, so every Saturday that summer I was rewarded with $18 for six days of shovel handling on the basis of 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., unless it rained.

We shoveled the gravel into tipcarts, and it was two summers after my debut that the first truck came to challenge the horses. That truck was on a trial basis; the driver had to prove that he could make his truck keep up with the teams. We had no paved roads in our town, and some of the first automobiles trying to get through town in March mud time mired down right in front of the post office.

I had to supply my own shovel, but at that time a good one could be had from Steve Mitchell's store for 65 cents. The only machinery connected with building and maintaining highways was a huge thing called a ``road scraper,'' and it was in those happy times that I first developed a yen to steal one and see what happened.

Each year at town meeting the citizens would appropriate certain sums for ``building'' roads, and other sums for ``maintaining'' roads. Sections to be ``built'' were always stipulated, because the state had ``stipends'' to reward towns that ``complied.'' All town roads not being ``built'' were subject to ``maintenance'' from other appropriations.

The road scraper was what did the maintaining. It had a great crosswise blade that could be lowered and raised, and angled, by turning control wheels, and the man topside kept adjusting as the thing moved. Drawn by a team of horses, and sometimes two teams, the road scraper moved along to smooth away ruts and ``washboard,'' and to level the mounds left by spring quagmires. That was ``maintenance.''

When work began on ``building'' road, we four in the pit kept on shoveling, and when one tipcart pulled out, another was ready to back in for our attention. At the job, the gravel was dumped, and men with rakes leveled it as the road commissioner squinted to make sure some kind of contour resulted. If too much gravel fell in the wrong place, it was shoveled into a wheelbarrow and trundled elsewhere. Now and then I hear somebody make some remark about ``the good old days,'' and usually he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Every town owned a road scraper. None, I'm sure, was ever housed. It was left in the bushes at the side of the roadway where it was last used, and when it came time to do some more maintaining, the road commissioner would try to remember where it was and send a man with a team to get it. And during the summer, the scraper would be left at each day's end right where the maintaining stopped, to be hitched onto again in the morning for another stretch - stretches running about 2 miles a day if the going was good. Now and then would come a place where ``repair'' gravel had to be added, and the scraper waited until we could load a tipcart and it could reach the scene.

So the location of a road scraper was a traffic warning. If you came to one parked in the bushes, as you tooled along at 25 m.p.h. in your Model T, that meant the road ``improvement'' had ceased at that spot, and you would do well to slow to maybe 3 or 4 m.p.h. if you didn't want your backbone unjointed. The tin lizzie also had a flair for shimmying and jackknifing at washboard on the nether side of road scrapers, and going off into Farmer Brown's strawberry patch. All prudent motorists of that day kept an eye out for road scrapers, parked or working.

As trucks came into their own, and heavy earthmoving equipment matured, those old road scrapers came to be used less and less, and all of them finally got parked in the bushes. Whatever do you suppose became of them? But it was my whimsy, off and on in those times, to want to steal one. Not for personal gain, and not to vex the police, but just to see if anybody cared and what would happen. I never did steal one, but perhaps I should have.

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