At least half of our country has to deal with snow during the winter months. In some areas it gets quite deep, and wind-blown snow causes huge drifts. For centuries, travel was restricted during the winter. Horse-drawn sleighs and sleds were used almost exclusively until spring came.
It wasn’t until the advent of the railroad that long-distance travel was possible in ordinary conditions. When deep snow arrived, even rail movement came to a stop. Unbeknownst to most, the rail tycoons – whose influence on economic activities in early years had become the 900-pound gorilla in our country – were convinced they could continue their activities in spite of the snow problem.
In the late 1800s, many attempts were made to keep rail lines open during the winter. The idea was that locomotives, which were extremely heavy and powerful, could plow snow off the tracks as they moved forward. Huge V-plows were built and affixed to the front of special locomotives. In some cases, they were successful. In really deep snow, they failed miserably. Believe it or not, efforts were even made to connect five heavy locomotives and propel them into a running start to bash into snowdrifts. The result: a huge train wreck! Mother Nature won and the rail line remained closed.
It wasn’t until about 1900 that the railroads created gigantic rotary snowplows. What they came up with would today be called snow blowers. Huge amounts of horsepower provided by the locomotive’s steam engine powered a disc with protrusions on its face. As the train moved slowly forward, those protrusions cut into the snow, chewed it up and blew it out to the side of the track. No amount of snow or hard snowdrift was immune to those plows. Trains could roll no matter the weather.
For individuals, the only way to “get on top of a snowfall” or to create a path through the white stuff was backbreaking shoveling. Not only was it hard work, but thousands of people unaccustomed to strenuous physical labor suffered heart attacks as they tackled snow removal. Mechanical removal of snow requires so much horsepower that, for a long time, it was impractical for the average homeowner. Small gasoline engines were widely available and were used for such things as lawn mowing, but using them as snow handlers didn’t seem possible.
Sears Craftsman products are well known throughout the U.S. The company’s first lawn mower was introduced in 1934. Sears is proud of its long history of providing equipment for homeowners. However, it is impossible to get verification that Sears was one of the first companies to market a walk-behind snow blower. Like many large companies, Sears chooses to ignore its early products that weren’t huge successes. Well, early Craftsman snow blowers were made and I have one. I’ll bet you have never seen one like it.
Discovered at a farm auction in the early 1990s, the Craftsman snow blower looked pretty pathetic. One couldn’t be too sure what he was bidding on since some of the important parts were missing. There was considerable doubt if it had any value. But since we live in deep snow country, I thought having an ancient snow blower would be interesting, even if it didn’t work. As the only bidder, I bought it for the piddling sum of 50 cents.
When we got the relic home, my oldest son (who is mechanically clever and can fix most anything) took a liking to it. A week or so later, he announced he thought he had it repaired to the point where it would work. The major missing part was the air box surround. He found one that would fit on a parts engine. The fact it was orange and didn’t match the color of the rest of the machine didn’t matter. Initially, we jerry-rigged a cover for the missing air cleaner over the carburetor. Since a person is blowing snow, and dirt is not a problem, all that was necessary was some way to keep the snow out. Later a regular Briggs & Stratton air cleaner was obtained.
The little engine started and ran well. Then came the long wait until there was snow on the ground. When that time came, we were absolutely amazed at how well the little, old-fashioned blower worked. It walked right through the snow, blowing it either to the left or the right, depending which direction the chute was pointed. The only problem was that one wheel didn’t rotate properly. It became obvious that the reason the little machine had been retired was there was something mechanically wrong with that side final drive.
Like a lot of rural residents, we had learned over the years that Sears was really good at providing repair parts for their products. We found that the gear that actually made the problem wheel turn had a couple of teeth worn so much they often slipped. Due to the advanced age of our blower, the chance of Sears having a new gear was remote, but it didn’t hurt to inquire. Initially we were told their records, which were then on microfilm, didn’t list that model number. However, when they consulted the old printed parts list, they discovered that the only parts still listed for our blower were the very gears we needed, and they had four in stock. Although we will probably never need the other three, I bought all four gears and we were back in business.
When our four sons were home, the old blower got used a lot, since at our high elevation we have snow on the ground for more than three months every year. We were always amazed that the old-fashioned steel wheels proved adequate. We thought they would spin when it was slick, but that didn’t happen. The blower handled both wet and dry snow. The only real weakness of the granddaddy of all walk-behind snow blowers is the discharge chute. The snow is blown either to the left or the right. In many situations, however, the operator needs the snow to be blown forward. That is especially important when trying to get through banks of snow a plow has left behind.
As is the case with all older equipment, newer and more capable blowers have passed our old Craftsman 18-inch snow blower by. However, back in its day, it was revolutionary: For the first time, the ordinary individual could move snow without shoveling it. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email.