August 24, 2012

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Pole and Plank Roads

Imagine a pristine emerald swamp. Katydids and blue jays sing in the background as leaves rustle a melody in the humid August breeze. In the distance, there’s a dull thumping noise creating rhythm. The beat comes from mule hooves pulling a wagon, but the rhythm you hear is not mule hooves alone. Additional percussion is courtesy of wagon wheels on a corduroy road.

A “corduroy” road sounds odd today, but they were real and had a profound impact on the history of the Bootheel region of Missouri. Traveling through these swamps was not fun or easy. A wagonload of supplies would quickly dig into the mud and get stuck. A map of the 1821 Trail of Tears demonstrates how difficult travel was. One route forced the Cherokee tribe north from North Carolina, then west to Cape Girardeau, then down south, and west to Oklahoma. Those extra harsh miles on an already miserable trip were not for sightseeing; they were to avoid the swamps.

Corduroy roads, also known as pole roads, were a pioneer solution for horses, mules, wagons, and foot travelers through the swamp. They allowed for fewer trips because a heavier load was possible with less hassle and drier feet. Early pioneers cut poles from nearby forests to lay down in a neat row, like Venetian blinds unrolled, over the mushy path. The ride was bumpy as well as rhythmic. Early European settlers got around the lowlands in one of two ways: on a ridge or by boat. The lowland definition of a ridge requires some explaining to Ozark hill folk who are used to sixty- and seventy-foot elevated ridges. In “swampeast” Missouri, all you need is five to ten feet of higher ground to call it a ridge. And those few feet make a huge difference.

Otto Kochtitzky moved to New Madrid County in 1875 and was an engineer who eventually surveyed the southeast lowlands so a drainage plan could be drafted. Kochtitzky had a smidgen of historian mixed in with his surveying talents, and his family published his memoirs in 1957, The Story of a Busy Life. He indicated that, “Just prior to the Civil War two rough roads, crosslaid with poles and rails in the boggy places, had been built across the swamps. One of these roads, known locally as ‘The Pole Road,’ extended from the [Mississippi] river just about ten miles below New Madrid. … It led through the settled land along the dry, upbuilt bank of a bayou known as Portage Bay, to Little River.”

The lower areas of the Bootheel were wet up to 50 percent of the year or more. Those small five- to ten-foot ridges were beneficial because they flooded infrequently and provided easier travel. The only difficulty with running a ridge was crossing a slough, river, or swamp to get to the next ridge. Paul Corbin of Advance has seen a lot of changes and remembers the pole roads in Bollinger County during the early 1900s.

Corbin says that those corduroy roads were “not very long in most places, just long enough to get to the next ridge. No need to build a pole road on dry ground.”

Long time Stoddard County resident and World War II veteran Joe Brown also knows about these roads firsthand. He not only grew up with pole roads but spent time after the war interviewing original Missouri swamp dwellers about life before drainage. “If larger poles were used to make a corduroy road, then smaller poles were cut and placed in the dips created between each log to smooth the bumps,” he says, “… well, a little.”

August 24, 2012


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