There is no mistaking a farm-to-market road. It is different from other highways: narrower, more winding, more attuned to the contours of the earth. You can’t drive as fast, and you don’t want to, because on a farm-to-market road the feeling is of driving on the land instead of past it. A good stretch of farm road is the apotheosis of a very Texan institution—the drive for no other purpose than to get the feel of the country—and that is why the farm-to-market road is to Texas what the freeway is to California: not just a highway but a symbol of the culture.
The FM road conquered at last the vastness and deep isolation of rural Texas. It was conceived as a way to keep people on the farm; instead it brought them to the cities. Farmers sent their crops and then their children down the FM road, and in time the prairies turned into shopping centers: A highway sign one block from the Houston Galleria identifies eight-lane Westheimer Road as FM 1093.
The first farm-to-market road was opened in 1941. FM 1 extended only three miles into the Piney Woods, and the farmer wasn’t even the main beneficiary—the road led to the Temple Lumber Company sawmill at Pineland—but the prospect of paved roads in the backcountry was enough to stimulate one of the major lobbying campaigns in Texas history. Its slogan was “Get the farmer out of the mud,” and its success was assured in 1949 when the Legislature guaranteed permanent funding for new farm-to-market roads. The act made a hero of its sponsor, Dolph Briscoe (after a long retirement from politics he emerged to be elected governor in 1972), but it made a mess of the state highway system. The law reserves for FM roads 1 cent for every gallon of gasoline sold in Texas—$91.6 million in 1982—plus another $15 million