Mud, Horseless Carriages, and Possum Run Road

I have gone around that corner a thousand times, and it was nothing but a sharp curve in the road until the day when an old man told me the story behind the field there where the road turns.

Before then I had never even noticed that piece of ground, but since then there hasn’t been a time I’ve gone past when I haven’t regarded that field as a living landmark.

The old oil stains and lug nuts, the harness hooks and horseshoes that must be buried in the dirt underneath the crops, mark a strata of time from the distant era when American culture underwent the awkward transition from a slow horse-drawn pace to the modern high-speed automotive world we know today.

That is the power of history: it can invest a field with a soul and bring it to life.

The field is on Possum Run Road.

If you have driven south toward Snow Trails from the I-71 hub area, then you have turned the sharp curve that defines that field where a small moment of automotive history took place.

The Possum Run Road horseless carriage field is located just south of Route 13, where the road makes a sharp curve opposite German Church Road.

This is not a momentous tale, but it has a significant kind of depth and charm to it that can be best appreciated with a sense of what life was like for drivers back then.

‘Back then’ was 1896-1925. Most of those years were what was known as the “horseless carriage era,” because until that turning point in history everybody had been traveling by horse for centuries.

The roads were built for horses.

That is, in fact, the whole nucleus of this story: the roads were made to serve horses. Automobiles with inflatable rubber tires required something else entirely.

There had been a movement underway since the 1880s to get the roads improved enough for bicycle travelers. It was called the Good Roads movement, and there were local chapters and associations all over the country pushing for legislation and funding to get solid pavements under America’s tires.

The Good Roads Movement was instigated by bicycle riders in the 19th century, but was quickly adopted by automobile drivers in the 20th century.

It only takes one photo to understand why this was important:

Richland County mud in 1915.

By 1913 there was a drivable road that went from coast to coast called the Lincoln Highway.

The Lincoln Highway was only one road however, and even it was subject to the uncertainties created by weather. When the US Army Motor Transport Corps made a trek from Washington DC to San Francisco in 1919 they bogged down up to their axels in Richland County mud.

The US Army understood keenly that the key to America’s homeland defense was going to be the roads over which everyone would have to mobilize. They had just spent some ugly months trying desperately to move around Europe during WWI, and were determined to get the US driving conditions into better shape than that.

The Transcontinental Motor Convoy made their excursion in 1919 a very public event, in order to dramatize the state of American roads. What they found in Richland County was perhaps a little more dramatic than they were expecting.

They arrived here after it had been raining for several days.

It took them a whole day to get from Wooster to Bucyrus because the stretch of road west of Ontario was apparently bottomless mud.

The US Army’s Transcontinental Motor Convoy took a considerable amount of Richland County mud with it on the trip west.  They arrived here on July 15, 1919 after several days of steady rain.

The Lincoln Highway, America’s first attempt at encouraging automobile travel, passed right through Richland County.

The problem with Richland County mud, as far as horseless carriages was concerned, didn’t stop when the rains ended. During the hot summer months when the roadways baked to the consistency of hard brick, the deep ruts which had formed during slushy months turned to very solid, and effectively disabling, wheel traps.

Once a car had accidentally steered into the ruts it was practically impossible to steer back out. And if the car happened to plop sideways down into one of these trenches the tires were liable to simply pop.

Read the diaries of early motorists—at that time they were called “autoists”—and every other paragraph involves changing tires, repairing tires, cursing at tires.

Rescuing a horseless carriage outside of Shiloh.

So what does this have to do with Possum Run Road?

During these formative years of automobile travel everybody wanted to get a horseless carriage.

Owning one could be a frustrating experience if you lived out in the country. It seemed like going to town in a car would be faster than hitching up the horses, but often enough it took twice as long once repairs were factored in.

So here’s what they would do: farmers would load their shiny new Tin Lizzy onto a farm wagon, and then haul it to someplace closer to town.

Towing the horseless carriage by farm wagon.

They needed a place to unload the car from the wagon, and leave their horses unattended while they were off wheeling around in the car.

That place was a field on Possum Run Road. From there it was an easy spin up South Main Street into the county seat.

South Main Street—then known as Route 13—was one of the first roads in the county to be professionally surfaced. The field on Possum Run Road was a particular kind of parking lot that served a unique purpose in the annals of Richland transportation history.

The Possum Run auto exchange, 1896-1925.

Possum Run Road horseless carriage field.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s