Early Road Machinery

by on August 15, 2010 in Rick Church

For the first hundred years Nelson seems to have built and repaired its roads using hand and ox-drawn tools also used on farms. Perhaps the earliest equipment specifically designed for highway maintenance was the use of snow rollers for clearing roads in the winter.

The town kept its roads open in the winter with men hired to “break” the roads in their neighborhoods. In 1858 the town “voted $113 for the year for breaking roads. Men to be hired for $.08 per hour; oxen for $.10 per hour; horses for the same rate as oxen and cows for less.” They did this by packing the roads with rollers like the one shown in the photograph, from Sutton, VT. Rolled snow made a good surface for sleighs and sleds.

The first record of a town purchase of equipment specifically for road maintenance came in the form of a vote in the March town meeting of 1882 instructing the selectmen to purchase a road scraper: “Voted to instruct the selectmen to purchase a road scraper.” The treasurer’s report shows it cost $60. It was likely similar to the ones illustrated in this advertisement from the late 19th century:

Six years later, the selectmen recommended a serious upgrade in town equipment.

Article 7 on the March 31, 1888 warrant read: “To see if the own will vote to purchase one American Champion Road Machine.”  As the name suggests, this was quite a machine.  The picture of the American Champion below shows it to be a horse- or ox-drawn grading machine with a blade that can be angled and leveled. It had two operators; one who drove the team and the other who adjusted the blade.

Voters of the town passed over article 7. Chastened, the selectmen waited five years before trying again. From the records of the March 1893 town meeting:

“Article #5 To see if the town will buy a road machine or pass any vote in relation thereto.”

“Voted to instruct the selectmen to purchase a road machine. “

The treasurer’s report for 1893 reflects the purchase of a “John Hadlock road machine” for $250.  John Hadlock was the Milford, New Hampshire agent for American Champion Road Machine.

Early in the twentieth century automobiles began to travel Nelson roads made smoother, no doubt, by the new road machine. The first “resident” automobile came to town as the property of William L. Story.  The Story Farm cellar hole can still be seen at the foot of Jonathan Smith’s driveway on the aptly named Story Road. A year later Wayland Tolman, Wilmer C. Tolman, Albertis Wilder and Willie L. Guillow all owned the machines. That same year Fred A. Fisher brought the first motorcycle to town. But in 1915 Nelson was still hiring ox teams and their owners to maintain its highways. Though the town may have moved on to the use of motorized equipment earlier, the first record of such a purchase occurs in 1927.

The selectmen placed a tractor on the March 8, 1927 warrant:

“Article 5 Voted to buy a tractor.” The voters approved.

“Voted that $500 of the purchase price of the tractor be raised by taxation and the balance borrowed. “  The meeting recessed until 2PM on March 26th when voters met to decide what kind of tractor to purchase.  One can imagine tractor dealers bringing their machines to show off to Nelson voters.

The record of the meeting reads as follows:

“Motion made and passed that vote be taken by ballot to see what kind of tractor to buy.

Result of vote.  Whole number of ballots cast 28

Fordson had 3

Cleveland had 25”

The Cleveland was considerably more expensive than the Fordson and was a tracked vehicle, not a wheeled machine like its competitor. The meeting voted to raise $500 in the current year and issue notes for three years; tractor payments totaled $3,233.


Sources: Nelson Town Records, Google Books

The author is grateful to Sue Kingsbury for her skillful editing.

To see additional articles that Rick Church has written about Nelson history, click here.

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