Riding on the First Tarred Road: A Persistency Worthy of a Better Cause

Here is another Esther story, this time about roads in Maine in the 1940s.

While we were talking about school, Esther mentioned, “In the spring our road was so muddy that the bus would get stuck, and we had to walk to the corner where the road was better and wait for the bus.”

Esther still lives on that once and muddy road, but now it is tarred. Then she said something that really surprised me.

“I remember the first time we drove on a tarred road. I was three and it was a defining experience for me. The road was so black and smooth.”

The first time driving on a tarred road! When the heck were roads tarred in Maine, anyway? Hoping to find out, I poked around the Internet. While I didn’t find any definitive answers, I did glean some bits of information. The following is from the Maine Department of Transportation History: “In the earliest days of the SHC [State Highway Commission] there were about 25,000 miles of public roads and streets in Maine – all but a few thousand miles plain dirt. ” (The State Highway Commission was founded in 1913.) But “the period following World War II marked almost a new era in Highway Commission activities.” Roads were repaired and upgraded and no doubt tarred.

Esther was born in 1937, and some roads in Maine must have been tarred, but not where she lived. Her first experience of a tarred road would have been in 1940, well before the boom in road repair and construction.

But in my research, what especially tickled me was coming across A History of Maine Roads 1600-1970, again by the Maine Department of Transportation.  The following is from “A guide to cycling in Maine published in 1891 under the auspices of the Maine Division of the League of American Wheelman.”

“The bicyclist will find Maine roads made of sand, rock, and clay (that becomes glue when it rains) and roads that seem to select all the hills, and climb over them with a persistency worthy of a better cause. Once in awhile in his journey through the state the wheelman will find a bit of good riding, a smooth surface, an easy grade beneath overhanging trees with perhaps a rushing river to keep him cheerful company. Then he will wonder why it cannot always be thus, and what the reason is for our poor highways.”

Blue Beauty, from a past summer
Blue Beauty, from a past summer


What, indeed? Not enough money, not enough organization, not enough planning.

Clif and I have ridden our bikes over many bumpy roads, but never any that have become “glue when it rains” and we have never—all right, seldom—thought that our persistence was worthy of a better cause.

How soon the past slips away from us, and the present becomes a sort of fixed reality, one that we take for granted.  I am so grateful to have Esther to tell me how different her girlhood was in the 1940s than mine was in the 1970s. While we don’t want to become nostalgic about the past, I firmly believe it is good to know about it.

The past provides the underpinnings of our present, which in turn affects our future, and in that sense, the past lives on.

Our own tarred, country road
Our own tarred, country road


9 thoughts on “Riding on the First Tarred Road: A Persistency Worthy of a Better Cause”

  1. Our town still has a lot of gravel roads, which are not fun in mud season. A story I remember from my gramma was about how on Sundays they would sit on the front porch ‘visiting’ and count the number of cars that went by (there weren’t many in those days and it was a novelty). I can’t imagine doing that now!

    1. Oh, Eliza! That made me chuckle. We do a similar thing at the little house in the big woods when a person walks by or an ambulance whizzes past the house. However, I must admit we don’t do it for cars because even on our country road, we have cars aplenty.

      1. Yes, I note the traffic and esp. emergency vehicles – that always raises a question of whose house are they headed for? and hoping all is okay.

      2. Eliza, me too. Lots of—ahem—older people on our road, and as we age…

  2. Laurie, Even I remember when not all our roads were tarred. Schools now have a February vacation and an April vacation. When I was still in elementary school (K-8), we had “mud season vacation” – that was when the buses were not able to be on many of the dirt roads – thus school vacation week! Wasn’t a fixed time – just whenever the roads got too “bad” to travel.

Comments are closed.