Reflecting on the Rural Route

Town and Country

Looking back on the importance of roads and railways in the development of the population and agriculture in Kansas.

Published on: March 29, 2013

Lately I've spent a lot of time at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka – about an hour's drive from where I live in Kansas City. In one of my recent ventures looking into the history of Kansas cowtowns, Arthur Capper, and Kansas Farmer history in general, (something you will see in future Kansas Farmer issues) another thing I've noticed is transportation and its impact on Kansas agriculture and the overall population.

Obviously, the highway system was crucial to the urban – agriculture connection. An editorial dating 1919 outlines the need for an efficient system, part of a movement at the time for better rural roads. By this time, a few years after Henry Ford adopted the assembly line, it was clear automobiles were becoming a dominant method of transportation. The column, by G.C. Wheeler, who was then editor of the Kansas Farmer, is coincidentally titled, "Good Roads Link Town and Country."

This is easy to take for granted today. Wheeler wrote, "If roads are impassable in muddy weather, people living two or three miles out from town might just as well by twenty-five miles away."

Wheeler pointed out roads played a key role in uniting town and country. "Good roads radiating from every business center will bring town and country together, encourage co-operation and in every way lead to progress… This sort of road building should appeal more strongly to farmers and the people of the small towns than would the building of a few trunk lines. These roads leading out from the various towns immediately begin to bring returns on the actual investment and this will stimulate the building of more and still better roads."

Even before this, the railroad system was crucial to the growth of Kansas – and played a key role in its distinction as a cattle-producing state. From 1875 to 1885, Dodge City was shipping out over 75,000 head of cattle annually, according to the Kansas Historical Society. From 1860 to 1870, the population of Kansas rose by about 300% - mostly in the last five to three years, when the railroads became widely used. Horace Greeley, a newspaper editor and politician, even called Kansas "railway mad."