History of Plank Roads

A Writers’ Retreat over Winter Break

After celebrating Christmas and the New Year with our families, Hilda and I snuck away for a much-needed writers’ retreat. We escaped to Wisconsin, where we holed up for two nights at the Lawson House Bed & Breakfast in Hales Corners.

Though we had already completed several drafts of “Plank Road Winter,” we worked through another rewrite, changing the point of view from first person to third person, shifting a main character in the book, and strengthening the sequel’s connections to “Plank Road Summer.”

The Lawson House could not have been a more perfect place to write. We learned that the house is located along what had once been the old Janesville Plank Road, which runs into Milwaukee. We enjoyed fabulous breakfasts and wonderful hospitality. The large front room with a fireplace and comfortable furniture allowed us to settle in for hours of reading our manuscript aloud, editing old chapters, drafting new ones, and laughing and crying together as sisters do.

During breaks from our writing tasks, I leafed through various historical books scattered about the room. In one, I read about the Hales Corners Stock Fair that had taken place once a month from 1871-1958. This bit of local history actually wound up in our novel. We left the Lawson House inspired and refreshed with a manuscript ready for our editor to see.

Categories: History of Plank Roads, On Writing, Plank Road Summer book, Plank Road Winter, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Of White Oaks and Fall Colors

When I settled down to read Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, my attention was drawn to a beautiful color photo of oak leaves. The article, by Laurie Casey, was celebrating Illinois’ state tree, the white oak, which provides a majestic color show this time of year.

One tree authority, Donald Peattie, even called the white oak “the king of kings” in A Natural History of Trees. The magnificent shape of the tree, its fall colors of maroon and russet and wine, are all celebrated. And then, the article stated, “For all its glory, white oak is becoming rare.”

According to Kris Bachtell, a horticulturist at The Morton Arboretum, “White oak used to be a dominant tree here, but most were cut down to make plank roads, as well as furniture, flooring, boats and barrels.”

Imagine my distress, as a member of The Morton Arboretum and an avid fan of nature, to read that the demise of the white oak was caused by building plank roads a century and a half ago.

Imagine my despair, as an author of Plank Road Summer, to actually read the words “plank roads” in the Chicago Tribune, and then realize the tragic consequence of the roads.

And so I am putting out an appeal to readers of Plank Road Summer–if it is within your power, if you have the space and ability, please plant an oak tree! A  white oak, a bur oak, any of those majestic trees, would be a legacy worth planting.

As for those of us in lots too small to ever support an oak tree, we’ll just have to enjoy the trees we find in our neighborhoods, parks, and arboretums. And maybe wonder how many more there would be, had the white oaks not been made into plank roads.

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Crossword Puzzling

A few weeks ago, while doing the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Tribune, I came upon the clue “Toll road toll unit.” Glancing at the puzzle, I saw that it was a four letter answer and the second letter was x. Without a moment’s hesitation, I wrote “oxen” in the spaces. I was thrilled that a crossword puzzle writer would know that tolls were based on how many oxen or other animals were pulling a wagon. In fact, as I worked the puzzle I was composing a letter in my head to that writer. I was going to tell him or her all about Plank Road Summer, and thank her for putting such a great historical tidbit into the puzzle.

However, my puzzling soon faltered as I struggled to complete the puzzle. Alas, I had made a mistake. “Oxen” was not the correct toll unit. The correct answer was “axle.” Do you suppose I was the only person working the Tribune puzzle that day who tried the word “oxen?”

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Plank Road Summer book | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

At the Well

Mather Inn Well

Emily Demuth and her daughter, Louisa, at the Mather Inn well excavation.


The archaeologist, Norm Meinholz, was digging at the site of Mather Inn again this month.  This time, I managed to get back to Wisconsin while the dig was still open. Meinholz had uncovered part of the old foundation and established the exact location of the Inn, when  it stood facing the Plank Road.   The Mather Inn itself still stands  a stone’s throw away–it was moved many years ago, and now faces what would have been the Section Line Road between the Mather and McEachron properties.   

Just a few paces west of the foundation, the archaeologist had found the well.  Stones formed a perfect semi-circle (only half had been uncovered).  It was easy to imagine Katie pulling a bucket  of water from the well, setting the bucket on the stone rim, and peering at her reflection–even though that scene was edited out of our book during an early revision.    

Many scenes never made it into the final version of Plank Road Summer, including one which our mother particularly liked.  This lost scene was the first introduction to the Mather Inn from Katie’s point of view:  

“Katie walked past the grand front door that led to the parlor and the ballroom upstairs–that was for guests.  She hurried round past the porch on the west side, which led to the dining room–that was for teamsters.  At the back of the house she rapped at the kitchen door–that was for neighbor children.  Mrs. Mather was very particular about the proper use of doors.”  

As I walked around the original site of the Inn and stood where the front door had once been, I slipped back in time–back to when traffic sounds were the creak of a harness or clopping of hooves, and when water came not from the faucet but from a bucket drawn daily from the well.  Had Hilda and I seen this circle of stones a couple of years ago, I’m sure we’d have kept the well scene in our book.  

Click here to read a newspaper article about the first dig.  

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Mather Inn, On Writing, Racine County, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Writer or Archaeologist?

I didn’t always want to be a writer–I had other plans for my future.  For a long time, I wanted to be an archaeologist.  I remember digging up bits of old pottery from the rock pile behind the sheds. Finding a particularly colorful piece, I imagined some woman’s sadness about her favorite vase being broken.

My greatest archaeological discovery was a small arrowhead that I found in the pickle patch when I was twelve.  My brother and sister insist the only reason I found it was that I was too busy looking at rocks to pick pickles.

Seeing the Indiana Jones movies in high school fueled my desires–so much so that when I went away to college, I ended up with the nickname “Indiana Emy.” As it happens, my journey took me in another direction, and I never did find much more than that treasured arrowhead.

Archaeological dig at the original site of the Mather Inn

But last fall, an archaeological dig took place at the original site of the Mather Inn.   And I missed it!  A real archaelogist dug up shards of flow-blue pottery, and old nails, and even an entire jug, intact.  By the time I visited in October, the dig site had been covered back up.  But as I kicked about the site I spied a bit of white shining in the sun.  Not an arrowhead, but a broken shard of pottery.  Perhaps a bit off a plate, a platter, or a chamberpot from the Mather Inn. Somehow that little bit of physical evidence brought our Plank Road story closer to life.  Florence and Katie are fictional characters, but the Mather Inn was real.  Meals had been eaten, teamsters had been served, dishes had been washed.

I’m glad there are people at work, digging up bits of the past for us.  And though I’m not one of them, maybe my writing can help preserve the past as well.

Categories: Childhood Memories, History of Plank Roads, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Return to the Wade House

I was a tween (though the term wasn’t used in the 1970s) when I first visited the Wade House in Greenbush, Wisconsin.  The restored historic inn caught my imagination, especially because back in Racine County, a neighbor’s house had also been an inn along a plank road.  At the Wade House I admired the tea leaf dishes in the dining room, the woodstove in the kitchen, and the third floor ballroom.

Back at home I spent hours poring over the photographs in the Wade House souvenir booklet,  imagining stories that might have taken place within the inn if the historically dressed mannequins had suddenly come to life.  Pretty soon I began to wonder what might have happened to a girl sitting on the front porch of my own house as she  watched the passing wagons stop next door at the Mather Inn.  Though the Mather Inn was a much smaller and humbler version of the Wade House, I thought the stories could be just as interesting.

Twentysome years later Hilda and I visited the Wade House again while we were researching Plank Road Summer.  Though the mannequins were gone, the docents who led us through the house gave us a detailed sense of what life at an inn was like.  We learned that innkeepers used to count out floorboards in the ballroom to mark sleeping arrangemements, a fact that made it into our book.

Soon Hilda and I will head to the Wade House once more, this time for a book-signing.   Back when I was making up stories about little girls in the ladies’ parlor I did not imagine that someday I would return with my own published novel about an inn along a plank road in Wisconsin.

Stop by to see us at the Wade House during the Arts and Crafts Fair–Sunday, August 23, from 9:00-3:00.  We’ll have our own craft projects going–you can make a wool-tassel book mark or wool butterfly and add a plank to our road.   Copies of Plank Road Summer will be available for purchase and signing.  We hope to see you there.

Categories: Childhood Memories, History of Plank Roads, On Writing, Wade House | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

“They wrestled for it”

“I think they wrestled for it.”  This was one Wisconsin student’s answer when we asked who had the right-of-way to the planks if two wagons were traveling toward one another on a one-lane plank road.

Since the book launch in May, Hilda and I  have spoken to various groups at schools and museums and bookstores.  Last week we were guest speakers at the Graham Public Library in Union Grove, Wisconsin, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of our hometown library.  In  our historical presentation, we spoke about how the stories we’d heard as children had influenced our writing.  Several members of the audience also had stories to share that evening.

The biggest news is that we think we have found the old McEachron tollhouse.  A former neighbor from a mile or so east on the plank road (just past the Rise) said that she had been told that her house was once a tollhouse.  As Hilda and I drove by the the house in question, beyond the tree branches and building additions we saw the unmistakable lines of a tollhouse like the one on the cover of Plank Road Summer.  We suspect that this is indeed “our” tollhouse, moved to that location after the Plank Road era.

One woman recalled that when she taught at Waites Corners School, Edith McEachron would visit and tell stories of the early days in Yorkville.  Potawatomi Indians were present at the birth of one McEachron baby.  When the child was born, the Indians took the baby outside and tossed it to one another, leaving the McEachrons to wonder whether they would get their child back safely.  They did.

One man mentioned that his family home in New York State was on the national registry of Underground Railroad stations.  Every plank road, every community and crossroads, has stories to share–and some are better than fiction.

As to the question of the right-of-way, the more heavily laden wagon stayed on the planks, while the lighter wagon would pull onto the dirt lane.  But I bet that somewhere along those many miles of plank roads, there’s a story of how two men wrestled for the right-of-way.  Let us know, please, if you uncover such a tale.

Categories: History of Plank Roads, Underground Railroad, Yorkville, Wisconsin | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 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

Is There a Plank Road in Your Life?

Wagons travel along a plank road

Wagons travel along a plank road

Emily and I always enjoyed knowing that our family lived along the old plank road in Racine County, Wisconsin. Eventually our portion of Highway A was officially named Plank Road.  Other official “Plank Roads” exist throughout the Midwest, including the Watertown Plank Road in Milwaukee County and the Old Plank Road Trail in northern Illinois, along with businesses and organizations named after such roads, past or present.

However, some Midwestern plank roads have almost completely vanished from memory as well as from sight. For example, while I have lived in Porter County, Indiana, for twenty-five years, I learned only recently that I travel to school every day over an old plank road. According to a June 25, 1914, Chesterton Tribune article, an early settler named Ben Little recalled that the plank road that ran north from Valparaiso through the village of Calumet (later renamed Chesterton) was built in 1850-51 as “the great highway for the farmers to haul their grain to the vessels at Michigan City. . . The road was built of oak plank, made from virgin timber that grew along the road. The plank was nine feet wide, and two inches thick.”

Last week in Chesterton I saw a remnant of one of those massive oak planks on display in the Westchester Township History Museum. An 1858 plat map identifies as the “Plank Road” the street that is called Calumet Avenue today. A little square alongside the plank road is identified as the “Thomas Hotel,” and south of the hotel is a square marked “Toll Gate.”

I wonder whether the hotel keeper’s family and the toll gate keeper’s family were as neighborly as the Mathers and the McEachrons of Plank Road Summer. Because inns and toll gates were necessities along the plank roads, friendships like that of Florence and Katie could have occurred anywhere along the thousands of miles of plank roads in the United States.   There may well be untold stories about a plank road near you.

Categories: History of Plank Roads | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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