This Austin Mfg. Co. of Chicago horse-drawn road grader, circa 1900, can be seen across from the entrance of the Chester-Almanor Museum and the library. The elevating-type grader came in many variations that featured an angled blade. Originally operated by two men with a team of horses, a hitch was later welded to the tongue of the contraption so that it could be pulled by a tractor, but later was fitted with a steam or gasoline engine. Graders were used extensively to build the infrastructure of roadways necessary to serve a growing Plumas County population starting around the turn of the 20th century. Photo by Stacy Fisher

How technological innovations built the county of Plumas

A rear view of the Austin-Western grader shows details of the driving mechanism. Early graders included a seat mounted out front, located over the blade from which a driver would steer the team of four to six horses that pulled the apparatus forward, while another man stood in the back controlling the lean of the wheels. Photo by Stacy Fisher

One of the things that make the details of history interesting is discovering how one piece of the puzzle is related to the greater whole, especially when it’s about our history and the growth of Plumas County.

Situated across from the Chester-Almanor Museum and the library entrance in Chester, a strange-looking contraption rests unobtrusively nearby: an antique Austin-Western grader from a bygone era, covered in rust, but impressive in its simple mechanical design.

The Austin Mfg. Co. of Chicago was the largest construction equipment producer in the United States around the turn of the 20th century.

Originally horse-drawn, graders were later modified to be pulled by tractor, and subsequently designed with gasoline engines in the ‘30s, stated Marilyn Quadrio, Chester-Lake Almanor Museum director and local historian.

Behind the iron construction, the Austin-Western grader is imbued with history, just as the Ford Model T conveyed a wider story of the invention of the assembly line, or the account of the first ever powered airplane flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers in their aircraft named ‘Flyer’ eventually led to the commercial airline industry.

Early in the history of Plumas County, established in 1854, but originally part of Butte County, the countryside was divided into a number of townships: Mineral, Goodwin, Indian, Big Meadows and Seneca.

Before Lake Almanor, Big Meadows was at the intersection of four major dirt wagon routes in the 1860s, which included Humboldt Road (Chico to Idaho); Humbug Road (Oroville to Big Meadows); Red Bluff-Susanville Wagon Road; and a county road from Quincy and Indian Valley to Big Meadows and beyond.

Chester was not yet a town during this early period, until a pivotal part of its history saw the Chester post office open in 1894.

A few years later, after the Olsens and the Martins subdivided the ranch lands in 1909 and started selling lots, a community formed and Chester became officially a town in 1912.

By the turn of the century, the need for better roads, due mainly to the advent of automobiles, became a critical issue, Quadrio remarked. She said that the early wagon roads were closed due to snow and the passes were at high altitudes, and were muddy messes through the spring melt.

Quadrio noted that by 1916 the president of the state Automobile Association had already traveled up to the Chester area, trying out the Red Bluff-Susanville Wagon Road route versus the Humbug Wagon route to Oroville.

By 1918-19 there was a “Good Roads Association” in Plumas County lobbying the local and state governments for better roads. Improving the roads was important to the ranchers, for example, who wanted to make it easier to get their cattle and other products to market.

Before a county road department had been formed, Quadrio said that the board of supervisors at the time selected farmers or ranchers who lived in the various townships as road overseers, who supervised local citizens working on public projects to make extra money.

Frank Wilson (right) with a road employee uses a Fresno Scraper in the 1910s to construct a new county road from the newly built Almanor Dam to the town of Chester. Later this road would become Highway 89. Photo courtesy Chester-Lake Almanor Museum

Quadrio explained that it was a whole different culture at the time. Citizens in each township were responsible for keeping the roads within their township in good order. Work and supplies were reimbursed from the general fund by the county board of supervisors, rather than the state.

In fact, anyone — particularly if you were a male, that is — who was short on cash, could earn wages working a few days during the month on improving the roads, she said.

“The men who worked on the roads would submit a bill to the supervisors to be reimbursed for the hours they worked,” Quadrio said.

Prior to the availability of heavy equipment, workers used simple hand tools like shovels and picks to carve out the roads. It was backbreaking work and progress was slow.

Graders were first introduced about 1900, but were used extensively to provide road access after Lake Almanor Dam was constructed in 1914. Because graders required fewer men to operate for needed roadwork, the machines were critical in the development of Plumas County.

Horse-drawn Austin graders and other equipment used early on to build the roadways were far more efficient and could do more work in a shorter amount of time than men using shovels and swinging pick axes.

A conflict ensued between the county supervisors and the Great Western Power Company over who was going to build the new roads to replace the old ones, after construction of the Lake Almanor Dam flooded the old roadways, blocking travel from Humboldt Road coming up from Chico as well as other routes.

“The graders that were used were called leaning wheel graders,” she explained, which meant the front set of wheels leaned inward and were controlled by the operator. The leaning wheels, combined with an angled blade, “increased the grader’s ability to excavate and move material in a specific direction,” an innovation that was first designed in the 1890s.

Hand controls were used to lower and raise the blade that smoothed out the rough dirt, and made it easier for horse-drawn wagons and automobiles to traverse the roadways between townships.

Quadrio said that early graders actually had a seat mounted out front, located over the blade from which a driver would steer a team of four to six horses that pulled the apparatus forward, while another man stood in the back controlling the lean of the wheels.

“All the townships had Austin-Western graders,” she continued, “since the technology was affordable.” It became increasingly important to utilize the graders, as powered vehicles like cars were making a greater appearance in the county on a yearly basis.

The Dye Creek Cattle Co. donated the grader now located in front of the museum and library in the 1980s, Quadrio recalled.

An example of a Seneca Road Fund list, recording the work done by local citizens to improve roads in Seneca Township, published in the Feather River Bulletin, dated March 12, 1925. Austin-Western graders and reports of purchase of parts for repairs were commonplace in the paper. The local men who did road work submitted requests for reimbursement, as did cooks, stables leasing horses, and other workers directed by the local road overseer, who was appointed by the board of supervisors. Photo courtesy Chester-Lake Almanor Museum/Marilyn Quadrio

“The company had the rights to lease the Stover Ranch at the outskirts of Chester, and the grader that we have, one of three pieces of equipment located on the Stover Ranch property, sat for decades.”

Charlie Stover and his family were early settlers in the area, and their ranch foreman and caretaker Rube Gould (a local Maidu) did roadwork for the Seneca roads at the time.

The Olsen family did a tremendous amount of roadwork as well, and records of their submitted receipts still exist.

Frank Wilson was the county road overseer during the 1920s and 30s. He and his wife Nettie built the Prattville Resort out on the lake during this time using graders and other tools. Nettie billed the board of supervisors for cooking meals for the road crew.

The importance of using graders after the turn of the last century to help create the county’s infrastructure cannot be underestimated.

The buildup of Plumas County began slowly at first, picking up steam thanks to those weird, yet wonderful new-fangled machines that were critical in establishing a modern community.

The new roads gave a big boost to tourism, Quadrio added, because trips that used to take summer visitors several days to complete on the old wagon trails could be accomplished in just a few hours.