Snow Storms and Tire Chains in Rural Pennsylvania

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Rural residents tackled snow drifts with tire chains and elbow grease.

South Beaver Pennsylvania

During the 1950 storm, this was a common scene: Traffic snarled along busy Pennsylvania Route 51 at a gas station not far from the author’s boyhood home. (Photo courtesy of Charles W. Townsend III.)

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The month of December is often pretty wintry here in eastern Ohio, which, as most folks know, is part of the frozen north. Everyone talks about the weather, so that's what I'm going to do (even though I'm writing this in sweltering August).

I usually look forward to a good snowstorm so I can get out my Ford 2000 tractor and plow the lane, although I must admit some years, when we have snow after snow, the novelty pales just a little. Glen (the neighbor behind me) and I share a lane almost one-quarter of a mile long. My house is about 300 feet back from a state route, while my barns are another 300 feet or so beyond the house. The neighbor's place is about 500 feet beyond that, so including the driveways off the lane to the various buildings, there can be a lot of snow to move.

Glen has a Kubota tractor and a back blade, while my Ford has a front-mounted blade that can be angled in either direction. Since Glen works during the week, I try to plow things out on weekdays and he does the job on weekends. This way we both get to play in the snow, which works out really well.

I've noticed that when a big snow storm comes along, all us old geezers feel compelled to tell about the terrible storms of our youth, so here are my tales.

The details are pretty sketchy in my memory, but in December 1944 we had a blizzard where we lived in western Pennsylvania that snowed us in for several days. The milk truck couldn't get through Moore Road, the township road that ran past our place, so Dad and my uncle built a wooden platform on the drawbar of our Farmall F-30 tractor and hauled the milk cans the quarter-mile or so to the state road. This state road, paved with blacktop by the WPA during the late 1930s, was kept open only with great difficulty, and then just one lane was clear. I remember riding with Dad, after we finally got ourselves out, through narrow lanes cut into drifts that towered over the car.

The great blizzard of 1950 is a little clearer in my memory, since I was 17 years old then, had my own car and was unpleasantly immobilized by the snow. I think the 1950 snow storm was probably the worst one in these parts, at least in my memory.

I worked as a grease monkey for Marquis Motors, a Nash dealer in downtown Beaver Falls, Pa., and was at work on the Friday after Thanksgiving when the snow really started to pile up. After work, I started on the 15-mile drive to our farm in my 1948 Nash 600 sedan. The Nash went pretty well on slippery roads (probably because it didn't have enough power to spin the wheels) and I made it most of the way without too much trouble.

Two miles from home there was a long winding hill that I couldn't get up, but that was no problem. In those days, everyone who lived in the country carried a set of tire chains in the trunk or on the car floor, and most folks were quite adept at putting on and taking off these traction boosters. I put on my snow chains, got home okay and put the car in the garage, where it stayed for about four days.

On Saturday, after we'd shoveled enough paths to do chores, I tried to get out with our Ford-Ferguson tractor, but no luck. We had no blade of any kind for it and it just sat in the snow, spun its wheels and hopped up and down. I was prepared to wait for a snowplow to rescue us, but Dad - knowing our township had no equipment even remotely capable of clearing the roads - insisted we shovel our way to the state road. I'll tell you, one-quarter mile of road, clogged with 2- to 5-foot drifts, looked pretty daunting to two guys with shovels, or at least it did to me. Dad seemed to have no doubt that we could do it.

About all I remember of the next couple of days is the unending thrust, lift and throw of shovel after shovel of snow, as well as the snail-like pace of our progress. Sometime on Monday, with us little more than halfway to our goal, down Moore Road came a Caterpillar D7 bulldozer, driven by one of the Watterson boys from nearby Darlington, Pa. The township trustees, bless 'em, knowing they couldn't deal with the snow storm, hired the Wattersons (who owned a contracting business with lots of heavy equipment) to clear the township roads, saving us from having to shovel the rest of the way.

At last! I was free - free to go to work, see my girl and drive to all the places a busy teenager found it necessary to go. In those days, no salt was used on the roads. They were plowed and ashes from local steel mills were spread on hills and at intersections. Roads stayed snow-covered for a long time and the tire chains stayed on for a long time as well.

I remember the dreaded sound of a cross-chain that suddenly broke and began beating against a fender. A box of repair links (we called 'em "monkey links") was always carried in the glove compartment for such emergencies, and you had to stop and rejoin the broken cross-chain with one of these links. If left to batter the fender, the broken chain would soon beat a hole through the metal.

If tire chains were always run on muddy or snow-covered roads, they didn't wear out very fast, but inevitably, the main roads became bare while the back roads were still slippery. The temptation to run across bare pavement with your chains on was strong, and that is what quickly wore the cross-chains to the point of breaking.

Snow tires and road salt have virtually made tire chains obsolete. The owner's manual of my wife's new car warns that tire chains should not be used as there's insufficient clearance for them between the fenders and the tires. I'm sure no one misses them much: They were a pain to put on and take off, and tough to keep in repair, but they did get us through snow, ice and mud that would paralyze today's traffic. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net