Original street renovation was monumental, too

“Hail Hillsboro, our home so dear, Here pilgrims found their quest.

“They ceased to roam to build their home, Here in the Golden West.”

Those words, written by Bartel E. Ebel in 1959, echo the pride in the establishment of a small Kansas community in the late 1800s.

John G. Hill, the town’s forefather, originally named this area Hill City before he settled on the name Hillsboro, when the plat was filed on June 24, 1879. Hillsboro was incorporated five years later.

Hill envisioned the town as a potentially convenient trading center located along the route of the Marion and McPherson railroad line.

Today, as town leaders embark on a major street-improvement project, Main and Grand streets are being ground up by monster gas-driven machines unheard of 124 years ago.

Bystanders watched in late April as chunks of the past were unearthed and loaded onto dump trucks. For some onlookers, there was a treasure hidden underneath layers of time-the brick-paved street laid down by hand in 1922.

Harold Jost, 88, former Hillsboro city clerk, lived in the surrounding country side, and in his youth, he didn’t have the opportunity to get into town very often.

“At that time, it was unusual for us kids to get to town,” Jost said. “But I’ve seen some pictures of streets where the buggies were tied, and there was a lot of mud and trouble with the horses and buggies.”

Before the automobile became a common appearance in the community, the streets were home to locally made wagons called Lada Woge, which translates as hay rack, according to Sondra Van Meter in her book, Marion County Kansas Past and Present.

The town’s clay-gumbo soil “became very sticky when wet and impeded wagon traffic,” Raymond Wiebe wrote in his book, Hillsboro, the City on the Prairie.

Early photographs of the downtown area reveal wood-plank sidewalks lining dirt streets.

“Citizens apparently were content to drive their horse-drawn wagons along streets that were muddy during the wet months and dusty in the dry months,” Wiebe stated.

“Excess rain water from storms was drained through shallow ditches graded along the sides of most streets.”

But the car industry was on the move across the country, and Hillsboro’s progress was swept up in the era of the horseless carriage.

“The Hillsboro car dealers did really well financially (around that time),” Wiebe said in a recent interview. “And they were promoters that the better the roads-like Main Street and some others in Hillsboro were-the more cars they could sell.”

It’s difficult to sell cars when dirt roads are pocketed with deep ruts. So the town entrepreneurs eventually encouraged the passing of ordinances to hard-surface Main Street with heavy brick pavers in 1922.

During that year, either all or part of the newspapers were still printed in German.

“Now the advertisements in the German papers were in English,” Wiebe said. “And the car and tractor-implement dealers, they were pretty well 95 percent of the advertisements. There were a lot of them out there.”

At that time, some of the streets had different names than those seen on today’s street signs. First Street was called Elm Street, and A Street was named Walnut Street.

To institute the general street improvements, the city council passed ordinances No. 210-215, which included future improvements on Grand Avenue and Ash Street.

A portion of the last ordinance, No. 215, reads as follows:

“An ordinance providing for the issuance of internal improvement bonds of the city of Hillsboro in the sum of $32,622.16 to pay the cost of grading, curbing, guttering, paving and otherwise improving Main Street lying between the north line of Elm Street (First Street) and the south line of Walnut Street (A Street).

The total cost of the improvements charged to property owners along Main Street was $22,436.52, and the city at large owed $11,791.18. Within 30 days of the ordinance, property owners along Main were assessed $1,605.54 and the balance due-$32,622.16-was issued as bonds.

The bonds were to be paid semi-annually at a rate of 5 percent per annum, beginning Aug. 1, 1922, and ending Aug. 1, 1942-thus giving property owners 20 years to pay off the bond for street improvements.

As the project to pave the street with bricks was underway, the American Construction Co. was hired to begin putting down a sand-and-clay base.

Board sidewalks in front of businesses were replaced with bricks as the city grew, and by the time the streets were surfaced with brick, concrete sidewalks and curbs were put in.

The cement mixer and rock crusher was powered by a steam engine, and the steam-powered roller was also employed on the project.

Teams of work horses were used to plow up the streets, and horse-drawn dump trucks lined the construction area.

Early photos during construction show today’s Olde Town Restaurant sporting a wooden porch, and the city cistern-precursor to the modern water tower-lay in the middle of Main and Grand.

Although no records have been found from the company supplying the heavy red-brick pavers, those unearthed during the current construction project bare the words “Independence Paving Brick Co. Independence Kansas” stamped into the sides.

“Twelve blocks were (eventually) paved with red brick, the remains of which are still clearly visible along east Grand,” Wiebe states in his book.

Jost told Wiebe he “had been impressed by the large, muscular black man who laid the bricks so neatly on the bed of fill sand. He remembers how the perspiration ran off the worker’s face as he worked rapidly and skillfully on his knees in the heat of the day.”

Workers and bricklayers were hired locally and brought in from out of town as well.

“In 1922, that was too far to drive in every day the way these outside contractors can do now,” Wiebe said.

“I would think there were at least 10 workers related to this project who had to stay in rooming houses.”

One local worker, Albert Johnson, who grew up in the Friedenstal Dutch/Low-German community northwest of Durham, was in his mid-20s at the time of the street paving, according to Wiebe.

And he used the money he earned on the construction project to complete payments he owed on a car he recently purchased.

“It was Johnson’s job to carry burnt bricks to the black bricklayer, who set them accurately on the foundation of fill sand,” Wiebe stated in his book.

“To maintain efficiency, the bricklayer required two men to carry bricks and to stack them within his reach.

“Johnson went back and forth from brick pile to bricklayer for eight hours a day, carrying nine bricks with each trip.”

His daily wage was $2.50.

But the work didn’t stop after eight hours. Following their evening meal, the able-bodied and ambitious workers would drive to the railroad siding and scoop fill sand into a wagon for two or three more hours until either night fell or their backs gave out.

As construction workers intend to complete the current $697, 437.50 street-improvement project by fall-81 years later-they walk in the footsteps of those who toiled to lay down bricks for Hillsboro’s future.

And those wide streets they work on eight decades later accommodate modern vehicles and provide ample parking on either side because the city’s founder believed in the future of Hillsboro.

“John Hill was a very thoughtful and good planner,” Wiebe said. “He knew what a real street was.”

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