Roads: The Yellowstone Trail

When Pa bought the farm in 1917, it was on the poorest road going out of Ashby, but in 1919 the new "super highway" was built right past it (the road that goes by the gravel pit). They had a big camp up on Tollef's corner (where we turn off from Highway #78 now), a big tent for the horses and cook cars and bunk houses, built on old threshing machine frames with steel wheels, for the men. [11.67-5]

There was no motorized equipment for building roads then. The big "elevating grader" that loaded the horse- or mule-drawn dump wagons was propelled by 12 horses: eight in front and four hooked to a push pole on the back. The dirt was cut loose with a big disk blade, which tipped the dirt onto a wide belt that was driven by one of the big steel wheels, and elevated up and into the dump wagons. They even had a big bulldozer, called a "Morman," propelled by two horses hooked to a push pole behind it. [11.68-1]

That fall and winter, they graveled the road with horse wagons that had plank bottoms. To unload, the driver stopped and turned one plank at a time up on edge. They mostly hauled one-yard loads, but the road outfit had some extra-heavy wagons that hauled 1-1/2 yards with an extra-big team or with four horses. Some other men, including Pa, made some extra money by hauling gravel for them, too, using their own horses and wagons, making two trips a day. [11.68-2]

The contractor's teams made four trips. They started on the corner two miles west of Ashby (where the big highway crossed the track) and followed the crooked trail northwest from there to Dalton. They worked toward Ashby, taking the gravel out of the hole in the field next to the woods on Tollef Hoff's, southwest of the house.

They had extra shovelers in the pit and loaded much of it by hand, or parked the wagons under a sort of bridge and drove horses with small scrapers over that and dumped it through a hole. The contractor's brother was killed in the pit when a big, over-hanging ledge of frozen dirt broke off and fell on him. [11.68-3]

The teamsters walked a lot of the time. It was too cold to sit on the wagons.

The leaning tree on Tollef's was too close to the edge of the bank when the road was built, and it slid down like it is now. It hasn't moved at all since -- about 60 years now. [11.68-4]

We had that nice, new highway to haul stuff out on, a year or two later, when Pa built on the farm. The old road had been narrow and dangerous. Model T's and such had gone off into the brush periodically between us and Hoff's, and some called that curve "Death Valley." [11.68-5]

The new highway past our place was first named the Red Trail and also the Yellowstone Trail, and then changed to National Parks Highway. It was the main highway to the west, to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, etc. It had a lot of traffic during the summers, even big, high, white greyhound-type buses. (We called them mud turtles.) [11.69-4]

I remember having many narrow escapes turning into our driveway with the slow-moving horses. Sometimes we would be driving a team and wagon and have another team tied behind that, hooked to a mower or hay rake or something, and even have a third team behind that. (After we got the Farmall, I even brought home three loads of grain, bundled on rubber-tired hay racks, behind the tractor at one time.) [11.69-5]

The tourists and buses would come up from the south awfully fast on that straight stretch. One year a couple of fellows were trying to break the speed record from Fargo to Minneapolis, and they went off the curve and halfway down to our cranberry marsh. [11.69-6]

Highway #78 hadn't even been thought of then. It was just a crooked dirt road for the farmers to come to town on and wasn't even graded until in the late 20s or early 30s. The old dirt road ran up along where the north ditch of #78 is now and then angled around over the tops of the hills somewhat where #78 is. [11.69-7]

At one time it went up through the woods on the Lee farm to the Skaar line and then east to the corner. The barn on the place by the stop sign was below the road. The road went between the house and barn, before the barn was moved up on the hill. That was the way a lot of the Norwegians placed their buildings, thereby eliminating a driveway. Highway #78 wasn't built at its present location until the 50s. [11.70-1]

When the new National Parks Highway was built past our place, the maintaining was done mostly by one man and one team of horses. The equipment was a wagon to haul dirt into washouts and a six-foot blade like the one we use on our driveway. The road maintainers always hauled black dirt to fill the small washouts in the clay shoulders, because it showed better that they had been doing something. [11.70-2]

For several years, the maintenance man was Dave Balgaard, who was nicknamed "Babcock" after the state highway commissioner, whose name was Babcock. He had a fairly large sorrel team that always looked bored with their job -- and who could blame them, plodding along, day after day, pulling that blade back and forth over the same beat.

I think his section was from two miles west of Ashby and through Ashby, past our place and the gravel pit, to the county line by Gust Melby's or the railroad track there. "Babcock" never set the blade down very hard, and people used to laugh about being able to see daylight between the blade and the road. The road was really "washboard-y" with such light maintenance. [11.70-3]

During the 20s, before the Depression, it seemed like all the farmers in North Dakota would pile their wives and kids into their Model T's and tie tents and luggage all over the car, on running boards and fenders, etc., and come through on this road. I don't know if they were going to the lakes or to visit relatives or what, but they came through, one after another, between seeding and harvest. That was what the Minnesota farmers, who were tied down with livestock and cows, called "Dakota farming."

Some of the Minnesota farmers that didn't want to be tied down with livestock tried the Dakota method, but they always turned out to be "ne'er-do-wells." It didn't work in the Minnesota hills, where the land wasn't all tillable, and it only worked in the Dakotas during the good years, when it rained. [11.70-4]

The Dakotas had a lot of dry, famine years then, too, and the farmers almost starved to death those years. They couldn't live off the land as well as the Minnesota farmers. The Minnesotans had livestock, wild game and fish and could cut their own wood. They also had lowlands and sloughs for pastures and hay. [11.71-1]