Historical Markers
First Pinchot Road Historical Marker
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First Pinchot Road

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
PA 177, 1.5 miles S of Lewisberry

Dedication Date:
May 25, 1963

Behind the Marker

Public Auction at Farm near York, June 1939.
Public Auction at Farm near York, Pennsylvania, June 1939
"Sold!" shouted the auctioneer as he brought down the gavel with a loud bang. At the end of the afternoon everything was gone - equipment, land, livestock, and the house - all sold to pay the bank. It was another forced sale of a Pennsylvania farm.

The year was 1931, a time when the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression, and farmers throughout the Commonwealth were not making enough money to pay their mortgages or their bills. Pennsylvania farmers may not have been suffering as badly as farmers in the Deep South and out West, but their prospects were getting worse, and there seemed to be no relief in sight. These facts were not lost on Gifford Pinchot, who became governor of Pennsylvania in January 1931.

Image of Pinchott road before paving
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Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, thoroughfare before paving, 1909.
In a proclamation to the people of the state soon after he took office, Pinchot noted that “farmers are daily losing homes and farms in large numbers… largely because the dollar they are required to pay is… much harder to earn than the dollar they borrowed.” Farmers in the Keystone State faced a number of serious problems in trying to make ends meet at this time; among them were poor roads.

In the 1930s, Pennsylvania's rural roads were just awful, and nearly all of them were dirt. When it rained they turned to mud; when they dried out they were full of deep holes, ridges, and ruts. Heavy rains could wash roads away, leaving nothing but gaping chasms. Winter storms often made them impassable.

It was a struggle for farmers just to get their produce to market. Rain, snow, or ice could prevent a farmer from getting to market for a day or a week depending on the road conditions. When horses and wagons or trucks got stuck in the mud, the driver had to get neighbors to pull him out. It was a transportation nightmare.

Overland transportation had always been slow and difficult. Pennsylvania had no adequate hard-surface roads outside of Philadelphia before construction of the markerPhiladelphia and Lancaster Turnpike in the 1790s. As a result, the transportation of bulk goods and raw materials was easiest by water.
Etching of "The Good Old Way, Working Out the Road Tax," in the Improved Road Machinery Manufactured by S. Pennock and Sons" catalogue., circa 1885.
Image of farmers improving a local dirt road, from an S. Pennock and Sons road...

When completed in 1794, the Lancaster Pike was one of the finest roads in North America. Paved with stone and covered in gravel, it enabled unimpeded travel in all weather conditions, year round. It also was a godsend for farmers who used it to get their crops and livestock to market and saw their transportation costs cut by two-thirds.

The success of the Lancaster Turnpike inspired a major road-building boom in Pennsylvania. Paved roads, however, were expensive to build and maintain, so the vast majority of roads in the state were simply dirt. The railroad-building boom of the mid 1800s drove many of the state's private toll road companies into bankruptcy.
Image of 1885 catalog depicting farmers and a plow on a  dirt road.
S. Pennock and Sons 1885 Catalog

Fearing higher taxes and the loss of local control, generations of farmers had opposed state-sponsored road improvements. In the 1890s, however, farmers and their representatives joined a chorus of voices in the state - and the nation - calling for government leadership and assistance in road improvement.

In 1903, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the Sproul-Roberts Act, which created a Department of Public Highways and a commissioner to oversee its operations. The voices became louder after the manufacture of the Model T Ford, the first relatively inexpensive, mass-produced automobile.

Introduced in 1908, it revolutionized transportation in the nation and the state. In 1909, the highway department identified its greatest challenge: "[I]t is upon the dirt road that we must largely depend to market our products of the farm. How to improve the dirt road is the vital road question for us to-day." With the passage of the Sproul Road Act in 1911, the state began to finance the construction and maintenance of rural roads and to macadamize roads that connected major cities with towns and county seats.

Governor Pinchot on road grader
Governor Gifford Pinchot on a road grader, circa 1932.
Not all farmers in Pennsylvania greeted these new roads with enthusiasm. Some complained that the state focused its efforts on urban highways and paid little attention to improving rural roads. Other farmers preferred dirt to macadam. The new roads, one farmer complained, are "so smooth that horses have no foothold and are unable to draw half the loads that they could before the roads were improved."

Responding to the rising demand for improvement of the state's unpaved roads, markerGovernor Martin Brumbaugh in 1915 authorized the first statewide "Good Roads Day." On the appointed day, more than 70,000 farmers and 11,000 teams of horses worked on some 5,000 miles of dirt roads.

State and county Good Roads Days boosted the quality of earthen roads, and over the next five years, with aid from the federal government, the state maintained its program to pave major roads with either concrete or macadam. Still, more than 65 percent of Pennsylvania farmers lived on dirt roads.
Paved road with with Esso station on left hand sign.
Pennsylvania Department of Highways' photograph of a newly paved road, circa...

As the state and federal governments continued to improve the main highways into the 1920s, cars and trucks became more common on farms throughout the state and farmers' objections to paved roads disappeared. The number of rural car and truck owners increased significantly in the 1920s - there were already 10,000 trucks on Pennsylvania farms at the beginning of the decade - and in 1931 their demands for better highways became an important issue in the gubernatorial election. Gifford Pinchot campaigned on a promise that if elected he would pave rural roads.    

After his election, Pinchot persuaded the state legislature to assume responsibility for marker 20,000 miles of township roads and soon began to macadamize them "to get the farmers out of the mud." Begun in the early years of the Great Depression, when the U.S. had a 25 percent unemployment rate and Pennsylvania had a million men out of work, this road-building program was in part a work relief measure, and thus relied more on manual labor than on machinery to put people to work. Pinchot's efforts and subsequent road-building work-relief projects enacted only a few years later by the federal government under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal," modernized the state's and nation's infrastructure.

Built cheaply of bituminous asphalt laid over a layer of stone, most of the "Pinchot roads" were narrow, only slightly graded, and followed the lay of the land; but they were a lot better than dirt roads. They improved farmers' access to markets and helped to end rural isolation.

To learn more about Governor Pinchot's administration during the Great Depression markerclick here.
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