To be sure, the past 184 years of DeSoto County’s history has been a “long and winding road.”
Roads and the ability to transport goods, services and people over long distances is what built this nation.
The Time Traveler enjoys quoting that line from the “Back to the Future” series in which the driver of the famous DeLorean on the silver screen “time machine” quips: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” That’s a nod to flying cars, which sadly, are in still prototypes in production and not a modern-day practicality.
New roads, first begun in the 1830s, continued well into the 21st century with the opening of Interstate 269 just last year. In fact, your award-winning DeSoto County Museum has installed a brand-new exhibit on Interstate 69/269 in its new East Room Gallery, along with artifacts from the excavation of the roadway.
It is interesting to note that by the 1870s, a “horde of people were arriving at a rate of almost six new settlers per day,” and that meant that new roads had to be constructed.
Most of the early records of DeSoto County indicate that to accommodate this influx of new residents, roads, both paved or corduroy (meaning logs) and dirt, became the main avenues of entrance to this wild frontier on the Mississippi River. That meant the journey was often bone-jarring and bumpy. Sometimes wagon wheels became stuck in the mud and one had to spend the night by the side of the road until a strong and stubborn team of mules pulled you out.
According to the late historian J.B. Bell, the United States Government spent $700 for the required trading agreements with the Chickasaw Nation to purchase right-of-way to cut a road through the Chickasaw territory. The cost of the improvements totaled more than $6,000 and the task was not completed until November of 1808. Mississippi was still a territory then.
By the time of the Chickasaw Cession in the 1830s, newly-arrived settlers had to often make their own paths or crudely-constructed roads.
Bridge construction contracts were awarded to individuals not construction companies and the price was set by the length of the span. Road maintenance consisted of cutting back overhanging brush and keeping ditches open. Heavy-loaded wagons were prohibited from traveling roads until 24 hours past a rain.
In 1852, the Mississippi Legislature chartered a corporation to build a plank road from the town of Panola, in Panola County, across the Coldwater River, through Hernando to Memphis. Developers raised $200,000 in stock to be sold to the public at $50 per share. The name of the construction consortium was “The Panola and DeSoto Plank Road Company.”
The name of the plank road was later changed to the Memphis and Hernando Plank Road and the terminus ended at Hernando. When completed the plank road was 22 miles long with a toll gate every eight miles.
Charges were established for a man on a horse at 10 cents, passage for a carriage at 25 cents and 25 cents for a wagon and team of horses or mules. The toll charge was paid at each gate. There was an inn located along the plank road at modern-day Nesbit, or approximately where Pleasant Hill Road and Interstate 55 intersect.
Both oxen and mules pulled the wagons and often a farmer would drive his hogs all the way to Memphis at what was known as a “hog’s gait,” which took about two days for the little piggies to be taken to market.
By 1886, most of the main roads in DeSoto County had begun to be gravel surfaced. The Memphis Plank Road was still seeing heavy use in 1886. A bale of cotton could be hauled on a mule-drawn wagon for 80 cents a bale.
In 1909, there was “much agitation” over the issuance of $150,000 worth of bonds to gravel roads in the county. Letters to the newspaper were both pro and con, or for and against the bond issue, but proponents failed to get 20 percent of the voters to sign to put it on the ballot.
By 1960, Interstate 55 made travel to and from Memphis and the rest of the nation a breeze.
Sixty years on from that date, the nation’s newest super highway corridor, Interstate 69/269, promised to link travelers and commerce from Mexico to Canada.
The road to the future is thus paved with hard work and a great deal of effort from engineers, land surveyors and construction workers, not to mention the foresight of our elected officials who made it happen.
Time to hit the dusty trail … until next week, fellow travelers!