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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning




Department of Highways vowed to keep roads open in 1931

On several occasions this column has looked at the efforts of provincial, county and local officials to keep roads open during the winter.

During the 1920s, automobiles and trucks had become commonplace, if not ubiquitous, and their owners increasingly wanted to run them year round.

The plowing of roads and highways was a controversial issue during the 1920s.

Indeed, there was opposition to automobiles using rural roads at any time of the year. Several candidates in the 1919 provincial election campaigned on the promise that they would introduce a bill to prohibit automobiles on county and township roads at any time of the year.

During the 1920s, road maintenance in winter was a hit-and-miss matter. County and provincial roads were sometimes closed for weeks at a time - to motor traffic at least - but farmers were able to get into town with sleighs, sometimes veering off the road and striking a path through a field if that seemed more practical.

Despite opposition and grumbling, the province and local governments devoted increasing resources to winter road maintenance through the 1920s. Much of that spending came to a crashing halt with the onset of the Depression.

The provincial government was less willing than local governments to reduce road spending. Licences and gasoline taxes had become a major source of revenue and provincial officials did not want to jeopardize those funds by holding the line on road maintenance.

The Ontario government spent a great deal on snow plows in 1929. One of the huge new machines managed, during the following winter, to keep Highway 6 open between Fergus and Arthur. Historically that had been the most difficult road in the county, and it had often been closed for a week or more at a time.

Not everyone was happy having that road kept open. Farmers along the route complained that the plowing blocked off access to their lanes, with snow plowed 10 and 12 feet high. Shovelling through the dense plowed snow by hand was an arduous task. As well, the plowed surface on the highway itself could make the operation of sleighs difficult if not impossible.

There were many calls in early 1930 to abandon efforts to keep Highway 6 open to automotive traffic. The situation was similar with other provincial highways that were not as prone to drifting snow.

For the county and local governments, the issue of snow plowing came to a head with the setting of budgets for 1931. Most farmers, faced with falling receipts, wanted reductions in property taxes. County council froze its road budget for 1931, and talked of further reductions. Most of the townships budgeted reductions in road expenditures for 1931, some of them quite substantial.

At Wellington County council the matter was a controversial one.

Soon after setting the roads budget for 1931, a couple of councillors introduced a motion to purchase a rotary snowplow to cope with the worst storms and drifts. Other councillors made livid speeches against the purchase, which would come at the expense of other items in the road budget.

In the end, not surprisingly, the councillors representing the townships defeated the motion, and there was no rotary plow for 1931.

But even some of the advocates of strict economy realized the issue would resurface again in the future, and that excessive cutbacks in the budget would only bring on bigger problems in the future.

The winter of 1930-31 turned out to be a relatively mild one, and that postponed some the discussion regarding winter maintenance on county roads, with the associated costs lower than anticipated.

As well, the county had taken up the practice of installing snow fences along the portions of Highway 6 most prone to drifting, and found the results most gratifying. After some small-scale experiments in the fall of 1929, the province and county erected miles of snow fencing in the fall of 1930.

The province also began using a bulldozer to push back the snow banks along the road. The previous year, high banks resulting from plowing early in the year restricted plowing later in the season. The result was a dangerously narrow roadway, restricting the road in some areas to a single lane.

By the end of the winter of 1931, provincial employees had learned much about the best way to deal with snow and winter roads. Lower levels of government, with their tight-fisted policies, lagged behind.

By the winter of 1930-31, the townships were at least making an effort to keep their roads passable for motor vehicles. None had really adequate equipment or enough of it, but the mild winter worked in their favour. The harsh conditions of the previous winter had prompted most to augment their machinery and snow-fighting capability.

Such was not the case with most of the towns and villages. Dairies removed the wheels on their delivery rigs and fitted them with runners in order to continue door-to-door delivery. Bakers did the same, as did the garbage collectors in the towns that offered that service.

For years afterward, and more than two decades in some towns, there was no regular snow removal on the streets. When the snow built up, or following a major storm, most municipalities contracted with neighbouring townships to plow their streets.

Following a storm, that meant the streets in the towns had to wait until the townships had all their own roads plowed.

Elora, for example, did not have snow removal equipment of any kind until the mid-1950s, relying instead on plows and drivers rented from Nichol and Pilkington Townships.

All the local governments in Wellington County took measures to reduce expenditures.

A controversial measure was a reduction in salaries for councils and wages for hired help. Those rates were already very low, but there were those both on and off council who wanted to trim every penny possible.

Pilkington council debated the matter at length at its February 1931 meeting. Councillor Bob Stedman started the ball rolling when he placed a motion on the table to reduce salaries and pay rates by 10% across the board.

At the time, Pilkington councillors and the reeve received $50 per year and $10 for expenses. The clerk earned $200 per year, auditors $12 each, assessors $50 each, the road superintendent $347 (the only township position that could be considered full time), the treasure $140, weed inspector $45, and the truant officer $5. For today’s purchasing power, it would be fair to multiply those amounts by 30 or so.

The total reduction involved was about $115. The debate occupied more than two hours of intense discussion. In the end, Stedman’s motion to cut salaries went down to defeat, but several other municipalities did approve salary reductions that spring.

The subject would come up again in 1932 and 1933 - in Pilkington as well as most other municipalities.

As events turned out, most elected councils were judicious in their efforts to hold the line on expenditures in 1931, though, of course, there were cuts here and there that proved to be costly and unwise.

All in all, there was not much fun in being a municipal councillor in the trying times of the early 1930s, juggling the conflicting demands for better roads and lower taxes.

 

Vol 48 Issue 04

 
 

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