Wisconsin’s highways are an unremarkable part of everyday life for most of us in 2013, but in the 1920s, the expanding state and county highway system was exciting news, enough to warrant a monthly magazine devoted to the subject. Badger Highways, published by the Wisconsin Highway Commission from 1925-1929, included information about state and federal laws impacting drivers, progress reports from division engineers managing road construction projects throughout the state, and other features that offer a look at a transportation landscape very different from what we know today.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation Library has recently shared its archive of Badger Highways with Recollection Wisconsin. The DOT Library’s collection does not represent the entire run of the magazine–there are some gaps in 1926, 1927, and 1928–but the Library has made available online all issues from its holdings.
The Wisconsin Highway Commission and editor E. W. Chapleau introduced the goals for the magazine with its first issue in January 1925:
With this first number of Badger Highways, Wisconsin takes its place with about twenty other states whose highway departments issue periodical magazines . . . The improvement of our highways is the most important material issue facing the people of the state today . . . An attempt will be made to include in its columns everything of interest relating to highways. New ideas will be presented; proposed new construction will be discussed; the current progress of the work will be recorded. Badger Highways will be the medium by which ideas will be exchanged and road intelligence circulated through the body of Wisconsin road builders and the interested citizenry.
The Wisconsin Highway Commission published Badger Highways in an era when Wisconsin’s road system was headed towards more centralized and systematic management. In May 1925, the magazine announced a new state law that formally established the County Trunk Highway system. The new law required county boards to coordinate with neighboring counties to ensure highways linked across counties and were consistently named and marked.
In November 1927, the magazine ran an editorial from A. E. Smith, director of the Wisconsin Good Roads Association, that pushed for further centralized management of the highway system. Smith’s article, “System of Through Hard-Surfaced Highways Linking All Parts of State and Open to Travel Entire Year Urged” argued that improved roads were necessary in order to keep up with developments in neighboring states and encourage more tourism in Wisconsin. This sentiment was repeated by Governor Walter J. Kohler in January 1929 in his address to the state legislature.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation Library continues to add archival materials to their digital collection. In the coming months, look for photographs of highway construction in the 1920s, programs from highway dedication events in the 1950s and 60s, and a complete set of state highway maps dating back to 1917.
Read more about the history of Wisconsin highways in “Hit the Road: Later Road Development” from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Christopher J. Bessert’s Wisconsin Highways website.