Do You Remember: Muddy Spring Roads?

Glen Goodhand

There used to be a tale told often in spring, about a couple driving down a back-country road when they suddenly found their car up to the axles in mud. They were stuck fast and discussed what they could do to solve their problem. They had no sooner begun their brainstorming when, down a nearby lane, came a young farmer with a yoke of oxen. In no time at all, that powerful team had their vehicle on terra firma.

After their words of thanks and a suitable financial donation, their benefactor commented theirs was the tenth car he had pulled out of the bog that day.

“My,” said the travellers, “being as busy as that, you must have to do your ploughing at night!”

“Oh no,” came the reply. “That’s when I water the mud hole!”

The building and maintenance of roads have changed (and improved) over the last 50 years. But in those good old days, Mother Nature needed no help in keeping those quagmires in top condition to suck in unsuspecting wheels of every size and shape.

Technically speaking, these frustrating conditions prevailed as soon as the frost came out of the ground in the spring. Frost thaws from the surface downwards, so the soil becomes saturated with moisture, and it loses its buoyancy. The process results in the ground heaving.

The result was that, in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, the travelled areas of those dirt or gravel passageways oozed with excessive moisture and muck, and any solid surface on which to drive regularly seemed to disappear. Firm-looking ridges on an otherwise rutted route appeared to present a solid alternative to the rutted course punctuated by travelling vehicles. But they too proved to be fragile and would collapse as the tires bore down on them.

In some places, it was complicated by underground springs traversing fields and roadways. With the natural addition of more water during the spring thaw, the bottom seemed to fall out of those travelled surfaces.

Every scraping sound on the car’s undercarriage as the wheels sank deeper brought visions of a muffler left stranded on the muddy mound between the ruts. Approaching such segments of rural passageways it was common to see short sections of rail fencing, broken tree branches, or a healthy pile of stones protruding from the sludge—which represented a valiant effort to solidify the surface or create traction for the sunken automobile or truck. Occasionally, these schemes backfired, as a shifting splinter penetrated the radiator—or, perish the thought—a tire!

The worst scenario was the embarrassment of becoming so thoroughly stuck, that a neighbouring farmer had to be found to bring his team of horses or tractor to extricate the frustrated victim from his predicament.

This writer recalls that during those perilous times for motorists, the rural mail carrier demonstrated a much better way to traverse the mire. He distributed letters and parcels by horse and buggy.

For those who still drove “flivvers”—like a Model “A” Ford—these conditions were less of a threat. With their lofty suspensions, even if they sank a foot or more in the soft surface, it meant little damage to the undercarriage—and less chance of them being floundered.

Paul Westmoreland’s 1945 ballad, “Detour (There’s a Muddy Road Ahead)” could have been that era’s theme song. The last line of the chorus laments: “Should have read that detour sign!”

But in reality, the year he penned it, the detour was probably in no better condition than the original route.