Plank Roads

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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A Plank Road!

Authors Emily and Hilda Demuth on a plank road!

Authors Emily and Hilda Demuth on a plank road!

Emma, an "unknown Laura" and Olivia on the plank road at the Dousman Stagecoach Inn
Emma, an “unknown Laura” and Olivia on the plank road at the Dousman Stagecoach Inn

Though Hilda might deny it, I believe we were giddy with delight when we first walked along the plank road by the Dousman Stagecoach Inn.   Never before had we been able to point to a plank road when describing our book to potential readers.

The “Days Gone By” event sponsored by the Elmbrook Historical Society put us right in front of an inn along a plank road and even provided girls running about in prairie dresses.  In truth, the girls were dressed up for a Laura Ingalls Wilder contest–but we couldn’t help but think of our characters Katie McEachron and Florence Mather when we saw them.   Unfortunately, one of our Lauras in the photo got away before we could identify her.

Spending an afternoon in Brookfield, Wisconsin, among people who keep history alive warmed our hearts, despite the chill of the day that made signing books difficult.  Many thanks to the volunteers at the Inn, and to the parents who brought their children to the event.  Someday those children will be the ones passing our shared history to future generations.

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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

Plank Road Trippin’

Nine winters ago Emily and I were plugging away at our Plank Road book, snatching time from our families and other responsibilities–“sneaking away to write,” I called it.  When we weren’t scribbling, we were daring to dream about what our summer would be like if I received a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship.

I got the grant.

After much whooping and hollering we  finalized our plans for the Plank Road Trip–a week of travel to historic sites with a Dickensian entourage (two authors, our mother, Emily’s husband Franklin, our sister Gretchen, and six children, ages four to ten) followed by a week of digging in archives and scribbling without the entourage (courtesy of Mom and Dad and Gretchen, who looked after the children while we snuck away to write).

Many of Wisconsin’s best-known historic sites are relevant to Plank Road Summer:  Wade House was an inn on a plank road, Pendarvis was settled by Cornish immigrants, and Milton House was an Underground Railroad station.  The Scotch Settlement church building attended by the McEachrons now stands in Stonefield Village.  The living history interpreters at Old World Wisconsin and other sites provided us wonderful details about daily life in pioneer households.

“We’re the Demuth sisters — we’re writing a book.”  That line opened doors and drawers and cupboards for us, as volunteers and staff members shared what they knew, eager to discuss the making of strawberry preserves or the threshing of wheat.

Nine winters later, we are planning a reprise of the Plank Road Trip, this time to schedule book signings.

At this point we don’t know whether our entourage will be quite as Dickensian, but we do know how much we owe to the volunteers and staff at historic sites who share our passion for the past.

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