Professor’s new book shines light on Progressive Era middle class

The book, written by Dr. Marty OIliff, is available through the University of Alabama Press.

The book, written by Dr. Marty OIliff, is available through the University of Alabama Press.

A new book by a Troy University professor shows the growing influence of the middle class in Alabama during the Progressive Era of U.S. history.

“Getting Out of the Mud: The Alabama Good Roads Movement and Highway Administration, 1898-1928” by Dr. Marty Olliff uses the Good Roads Movement as a lens through which to view the rise of the middle class as an influencer in Alabama during an often-overlooked period.

“I’ve tried to write it in a manner that a regular history buff would enjoy but, at the same time, academic historians can get to the meat of it, as well as the story,” said Olliff, a history professor and director of the Wiregrass Archives at the University’s Dothan Campus.

In the book, published July 18 by the University of Alabama Press, Olliff traces how the Good Roads Movement developed in Alabama and effected a shift in the burden of road building from counties onto states and, eventually, the federal government.

He also uses this journey to highlight the growth of a new socio-economic class in the state.

“The Progressives of the Progressive Era were a middle class that was generated by the industrialization of the Guilded Age,”Olliff said. “They did not have a cultural place in American society, but they began to grow. They grew large enough that they started to try to impose their own ideas of what was good and right onto the capitalists on one hand and the workers on the other. These were the two groups doing battle, literally, over the direction of industrialization in the U.S.”

This growing middle class created the Good Roads Movement in Alabama, initially petitioning county governments to build better roads. But, over time, their actions resulted in the formation of the road financing system we see today.

“One of the things a lot of them did was support good roads as an alternative to rail transport and a harbinger of economic, social and cultural progress,” Olliff said. “Getting out of the mud means not only getting out of the mud of crummy roads, but it also means using roads to uplift all of society out of this bog, this impasse that this war between capital and labor over industrialization had spawned.”

For Olliff, the book is a means of showing an aspect of Alabama history that has been largely under the radar.

“I think that Alabama history has been overwhelmed by the continuum from Civil War to Civil Rights,” he said. “I wanted to contribute my widow’s mite to those other things that are going on in the study of Alabama history and help build those things up. Also, the stories in here are just fun. There is quite a cast of characters.”