Anderson Family History

Road Building During the Depression in South Dakota

During the Depression of the thirties, President Franklin Roosevelt started the WPA program whereby citizens could work on various public works projects to earn a few dollars for food. One of the programs in place was road building wherein the farmers in the area could help grade and gravel the county roads. If they had a team and wagon, they got extra pay and so fifteen or twenty men would work together in a crew. Gravel was loaded by hand from the pit, then hauled to the road where it was unloaded by hand and spread on the highway. Needless to say, this was a slow process, but it did supply much-needed employment.

In moving dirt for shaping the road, an elevating grader was employed. Pulled by a large crawler tractor, it would shave off dirt from the ditch area and by means of a conveyor belt would deposit the dirt in the middle of the road. Several passes up and down both sides of the road were required to get the grade built up. It still followed the up and down of the terrain, but did make a roadbed with ditches on either side.

One weekend the equipment was left parked in the schoolyard south of the store and it made an attractive place to play “road builder”. The elevating grader had a large hand wheel that the operators would use to raise and lower the conveyor as needed. It was locked in its raised position by a foot pedal that was only released when the men had a firm hold on the wheel to raise or lower the conveyor. Releasing the foot pedal was accomplished by stepping firmly on it to disengage a ratchet device.

While on the machine, playing with everything, I succeeded in releasing the foot pedal. The conveyor started to slowly descend, picking up speed as it fell, and the hand wheel was spinning at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration. The conveyor finally crashed to the ground, cracking the main wooden pulley over which the belt traveled. This was my clue to get off the machinery and stay away the rest of the weekend.

When the workers returned on Monday, it didn’t take too long to figure out what had happened. I think they felt lucky no one was under the conveyor and fortunate I hadn’t tried to grab the hand wheel to stop it. It would probably have broken my arms or worse. It took them most of the day to repair things, but after that, the conveyor was always lowered at night.

 By Merland D. Howe, 2000.

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