Snow Horses and Early Tractor Snow Plows
Beach Hill Road, New Ashford, Massachusetts 01237.
Today we complain if we have to wait two hours for a snow plow or sander to come through. I remember when it was normal to wait two days, some inhabitants of back roads waited a week or more, and some roads were not plowed at all. Families even those living in town stocked up the pantry and cellar, put the car up on blocks, got out the cutters, sleighs and bobsleds, had a horse or two shod with calks, butchered a beef critter or a couple of hogs, then worked over the wood-lot for the next winter's wood supply. If your road was not immediately plowed out, so what!
I was only a farm kid with that type of interest when the last of the locally made wood horse drawn snow plows and snow rollers was used. I never actually worked on one but do remember seeing them in operation. Two and four horse hitches were used on the plows and four and six horse hitches on the snow rollers. Snow rollers were peculiar to the New England states and upper New York state. Most were made locally; however, there was one manufacturer of farm machinery who would make them on special order. The advantages claimed were that it could be hauled in a straight line directly over the underlying roadbed, it did not leave a windrow on each side to develop more drifts, and two or more lanes could be rolled down to widen the road. On the other hand a horse drawn type snow plow would wander from side to side. If it encountered a compacted snow drift on the left side of the road, the plow would be forced to the right side and vice-versa, resulting in a snake-like passage and a great deal of hand shoveling to keep it in the roadbed. It was also difficult to widen the lane as the resistance of the windrow forced the plow back to the center. The snow rollers required more horse power because snow would build up ahead of the rollers. Also, where the snow roller encountered drifts, the compacted snow layer was thick, and where the snow was light or wind-swept it would produce a thin compacted layer so that the road had a built-in series of waves. As the winter progressed the layers built up. Then when spring thaws came, the plowed roads were soon bare but the rolled roads had alternate series of snow mounds in the drift sections and bare ground in the light sections, resulting in a combination of snow and mud road impassable to either sleigh or wagon. At times MUD time was even worse than snow time.
For power the farmers on the route furnished the teams on a tax write-off basis. Competition was high for, unless they were working in the woods, there was a winter surplus of horse power and allocations were necessary to give everyone an opportunity. If storms were frequent and the town ran over the allocated budget amount, farmers supplied teams on their own section free.
Here is where snow horses came in. I remember the old timers talking and arguing about them. It seems in belly deep snows and drifts a horse has a tendency to leap ahead while an ox or heavy well-trained older horse will waddle from side to side as he steadily pushes ahead, thus making his own pathway. Therefore a team of proven snow horses was used as leaders as, one might say, to break trail for the rest of the hitch. If one had a riding horse that was also a good snow horse it was a highly prized possession. However, the day of the horse passed on, being replaced by the mechanical horse.
Tractors of all types were released to the public after World War I. Also the government gave surplus military tractors, some still having the protective armour plate, to the states and the state in turn assigned them to needy counties primarily for improving roads. These were mostly Holt 45, occasionally a 75, and also Holt 5 and 10 ton models. The first snow plow was a crawler pulling a road grader that worked in light snows but bogged down in heavy snows. Obviously the place for the plow was in front of the tractor. Numerous companies started manufacturing push plows as the military type surplus tractors were soon accounted for. Dealers of the two main manufacturers, Best and Holt, went all out to sell states, counties and towns throughout the snow belt a complete snow plowing outfit tractor, cab and plow. Our town bought a 5 ton Holt. Early in the 20's the state bought a Holt 10 ton and a Best 60 for use in Berkshire county. The Holt was stationed in the north section (our section) and the Best 60 in the south section. The Holt had a steel V plow with wings, the Best 60 a wood V plow with wings.
In the mid twenties, while still in high school and having a couple of years experience driving both wheel and track type farm tractors, I was able to obtain an on-call part-time job as an assistant or auxiliary driver for other road departments. (The farm we lived on had two Holt 2 tons with plows, a Fordson and a Steel Mule.) When the 5 ton or 10 ton was sent out at night or during storms two men were required as a safety precaution. When a 2 ton had to go out, because the cab could not seat two men, two units went out the leader with a V plow followed by a blade plow. Thus a wide lane was opened and help was always available. As the winter progressed regular drivers developed a dislike for night, Saturday and Sunday work and our phone was always ringing. I put in many cold hours day and night on these old plows.
Early plows were both single blade and V type with and without wings. Some of the plows were built of hard wood planks and timbers with cast nose pieces, bits and brackets with steel plate and angle reinforcement where necessary. The whole plow rode on four runners which held it a couple of inches above the road and if one happened to bog down in a snowdrift it was difficult to back out. These early models were experimental and competition between individual manufacturers was high. In a few short years, hand pumped hydraulics and then power operated hydraulics replaced the old hand operated winches and chain hoist, giving one complete control of the plow and wings. As previously mentioned, the northern sections of our county had a steel plow and the southern section a wood plow. When we would meet up, a good-natured argument would start about the wood versus steel, plow and the Holt versus Best tractors. Naturally the men on the Best always thought they won. In fact, both had their good points which the merger of Holt-Best capitalized on. I distinctly remember back in 1925 the pros and cons of this merger that resulted in the worldwide Caterpillar Tractor Co. that we know today.
We at that time thought the crawler and snow plow would be here forever. We did not realize that even then they were on their way out. In 1930 the state highway department took over the plowing of all state and county roads and started using Chevrolet 1 ton dump trucks. We all said it would not last, that they would soon ask us back as they could not handle the big snows. Wrong again, because they did not wait for the snow to accumulate but started plowing with the first two inches and kept repeating until the snow stopped. Being much faster they could plow and re-plow many times while we were just making one pass. To this day it is the various truck type plows and Sanders that keep roads much better plowed. If one lives on a school bus route the road is plowed out before 8 o'clock a.m. However, complaints still arise, as at a recent town meeting in Vermont. An elderly man (79 years old), who had been complaining for years about having his road plowed out last, gave the town fathers a final warning: 'If my road is not plowed out in reasonable time my wife and I are going to adopt a school age child!'
Notes regarding the photos: I had my own large collection of snapshots and negatives from the 2 ton to the 10 ton and also a collection of old Caterpillar and farm tractor catalogs and sales literature that disappeared while I was overseas in World War II. So I tried to obtain a print from town and county highway departments and neither one could find one. I also tried town and county historical societies which searched for snow-roller and tractor prints without results. I even put an ad in the local paper thinking I could easily turn up a tractor print. No luck, but to my surprise it did turn up two snow roller prints. Finally I turned to Caterpillar Tractor Co. They were very helpful and I obtained several prints not of the actual tractors used in our county but of similar examples. The Holt 10 ton picture shows a wood or timber plow and ours had a steel plow. The Best 60 pictured is with a steel plow and ours had a wood plow. So use your own imagination. Note the U.S. Rubber Co.'s historical signs that gave a brief history of the approaching town. I remember they were quite common. This shows how quick bits of history are lost and old engine buffs who restore, exhibit and preserve this old equipment are to be congratulated.