Author Archives: Philip Martin

About Philip Martin

I'm the director of Great Lakes Literary, a multi-service agency for authors who want effective, practical help to write, market, and publish books.

See You at the Fair!

The Racine County Fair, that is. This weekend, Hilda and Emily Demuth, co-authors of Plank Road Summer, will be at the Racine County Fair in Union Grove, Wisconsin, on Saturday, August 1 (12-5 pm), to sign books and host some fun family activities.

Be sure to stop by their program tent on Saturday afternoon (it’s on the NE corner of Polley Drive and Creuziger Lane, near the Case exhibit, by Gate 5). For other events and directions, see the Racine County Fair website.

Why we’re excited: a major event in Plank Road Summer is . . . (drum roll, please) the first Racine County Fair! It was held in the early 1850s just west of the Mather Inn (one of the key places in the book).

Like the county fair itself, Plank Road Summer celebrates the community spirit and the rich heritage of the pioneer Midwest.

Hilda, Emily, and friends will be there Saturday from 12 to 5 pm. Besides signing books, they’re hosting wool-carding on an antique drum carder, a bit of live old-time fiddle music, and a display on Racine County history.

So come on down to the fair! Enjoy the rides, the 4-H exhibits . . . and meet the authors of this exciting novel for kids about county fairs, pioneer life, plank roads, fugitive slaves . . . and more!

From Plank Road Summer:

Even though she had watched the preparations day by day, Florence was still astonished at her first sight of the Racine County Fair. The north end of the Doanes’ front forty was lined with nearly a hundred wagons and buggies. The clamor of livestock provided a constant accompaniment to all the other goings-on.

Among the dozen enormous tents, Florence could pick out the dinner tent in which ladies of the Scotch Settlement church and the Methodist chapel were working together to feed hungry fairgoers. Next to the dinner tent stood a dance platform where a fiddler sawed a merry tune. Florence remembered someone’s claim that there would be enough players that the music at the fair would never end.

Mrs. Mather led the way to the domestic skills exhibits, which were flanked by a brilliant wall of quilts swaying on a line strung between two tents.

(As you may know, quilts and quilting also play a big role in the book!)

Hope to see you this weekend!

Categories: county fair, Racine County | Leave a comment

Be a Toll Keeper on the Plank Road

We’re working on teaching materials to go with Plank Road Summer. (Hope to post a draft of a Teacher’s Guide soon – next week? – on the Resources page.)

In the meantime, from those materials, here’s a fun handout, a 1-page activity sheet.

It’s a blank copy of a toll keeper’s ledger page, from p. 153 of Plank Road Summer by Hilda and Emily Demuth.

This worksheet may be reproduced as is for classroom or homeschooling use. It’s perfect to pose some pioneer math problems!

First, you need to create your own schedule of fees for your plank road company. In the book, for instance, the fee at each tollhouse on the Racine and Rock River Plank Road is 5 cents for a wagon pulled by 2 animals.

Now . . . does anyone know what “neat cattle” are?
(* see answer below!)

Click here for the 1-page activity sheet:
Taking Tolls on the Plank Road

* “Neat cattle” weren’t cattle that dressed nicely. It was just a specific term for animals of the bovine persuasion (i.e., cows, heifers, bulls, oxen). Otherwise, the term “cattle” sometimes was considered to include all sorts of “domestic quadrupeds” such as sheep and goats. (At least, I think that’s what “neat cattle” means.)

Categories: Plank Road Summer Teaching Ideas | Leave a comment

What Exactly Is a “Plank Road”?

Some folks have heard the term “plank road” but aren’t really familiar with what that is. (I really wasn’t, although I’d often driven on a ordinary-looking street in the Milwaukee area still called Watertown Plank Road.)

Now that I’ve read Plank Road Summer, by Hilda and Emily Demuth, I’ve gotten more interested in those mysterious bygone roads!

So here’s a simple description.

A plank road was a wooden road. The plank roads had a surface of big wooden planks (laid across heavier wooden “stringers,” that ran like the rails of a railroad). The idea was to avoid the mud and ruts of dirt roads.

Imagine a wooden boardwalk, wide enough for a wagon, stretching a hundred miles through the woods and fields.

The plank roads were sometimes called “the farmer’s railroads” as they helped farmers transport heavy wagonloads of wheat, corn, hay, and other produce to a big market or port city. Here in southern Wisconsin or northern Illinois, for instance, the plank roads went from inland towns on a beeline for port towns like Chicago, Racine, or Milwaukee.

Also, the plank roads were toll roads. Like the railroads that came later, they were privately built, and were investment schemes. A company would be created and would sell shares of its stock to investors. With the money, the route would be grubbed, graded, and ditched, and the stringers and planks laid.

The idea was to make a profit. So they had toll-houses every 3 or 5 miles, and charged farmers a fee (such as “a penny a mile for each animal pulling a wagon”). The toll was collected, maybe a nickel at a time, when the farmer drove their wagon through each gate.

Some of the toll roads worked well and made money (for a while). Others didn’t do as well at making their shareholders rich. Some never even got built. And of course they cost money to keep in good repair, to hire the toll-keepers, and all that.

All in all, there were hundreds of plank roads built by private companies, mostly in the eastern half of the U.S. (and Canada).

But eventually, they were replaced by the railroads.

Today, nearly all traces have disappeared. Not much is left . . . some old maps and stock certificates in historical societies, a plank here and there that somebody saved, and some traces of toll houses. Of course, the routes are still used as rural roads, city streets, bike trails, and the like.

For those who want more detail about the roads and how they were built, here’s an article about the Watertown Plank Road.

Here’s an interesting tidbit from that:

“The one remaining step was the placing of the actual planks. They consisted of oak boards three inches wide and eight feet long. They were placed on top of the stringers and pounded down with a heavy maul until they rested on the stringer. The planks were not nailed down or fastened in any other manner. This proved a disadvantage when the road was engulfed by high water, as the planks would float away. It was done because nails or similar objects would work loose and injure horses’ hooves.”

Yikes! The planks would float away? Sounds even worse than the potholes I’ve been dodging this spring. But for the most part, the plank road was a better choice for a farmer in the 1840s or 1850s than getting a heavy wagon of wheat stuck in a giant mudhole, miles from the nearest town.

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Plank Roads | Leave a comment

Developing a Book Cover for Plank Road Summer

Greetings from the publisher of Crickhollow Books! (That’s me, Philip Martin.) I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Plank Road Summer cover artist, Kathleen Spale.

Plank Road Summer, by Hilda and Emily Demuth

We found Kathleen through the network of the Illinois chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The SCBWI is an amazing organization for writers and artists, with state chapters, newsletters, and workshops, and many services and programs at the national level for children’s book creators.

When I checked out Kathleen’s website, I saw both the professional skills and the artistic sensibility to interpret a story. She uses the dynamics of light and dark, with lots of moody nuances, perfect for this Plank Road Summer chapter book, a cheery, uplifting tale for young readers . . . but with a few dark secrets moving through it.

The secrets involve the dark history of the Fugitive Slave Law and the legal efforts of slave catchers to chase escaped slaves, even into the states of the north. What a tragedy for young men, women, and children to “follow the dipping gourd” right to the edge of freedom . . . only to be threatened with capture and a return to their terrible condition of slavery. Through the good services of keepers of Underground Railroad way-stations and other good-hearted individuals, practicing a 19th-century civil disobedience, many slaves made it safely to Canada across the Great Lakes.

Anyhow, I loved working with Kathleen on the cover. She offered multiple initial pencil sketches, refined my top choice, did color roughs, then several rounds of the final artwork.

Kudos! Books by new emerging authors like the Demuths – and coming from a small independent press like Crickhollow Books – need all the help they can get! We are thankful for everyone’s interest and support, and are very grateful to get to work with someone like Kathleen Spale.

You can, it turns out, judge a lot about a book by its cover. In this case, the cover promises a wonderful story, well told!

(By the way, check again the historic photo of a hay wagon on a plank road in the previous post on this blog . . . you’ll see the source for part of the cover image!)

Thanks, Kathleen! Let’s do another book together soon!

Categories: Plank Road Summer book | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at