Rural Mail Carrier Converts Ford for Winter Roads

Rural mail carriers faced unique challenges during long winters in deep snow on rugged terrain.

| January 2013

In 1971, the U.S. Post Office Department was superseded by the U.S. Postal Service. Since then, the admonition that “the mail must go through” (earlier the motto of the Pony Express) has changed. In the old days, the phrase really meant something; today, delays are expected and tolerated. No matter the difficulty, though, even rural mail delivery was expected to “go through.” Rural Free Delivery (RFD) began in 1896 and often herculean efforts were made to get mail to those living far from the nearest Post Office.

Areas like ours in south central Idaho are marked by rugged terrain, long winters with deep snow, and considerable distance between residences. In early times, in good weather the rural mail carrier rode a horse or used a horse and buggy. When the snow became too deep for horses, skis or snowshoes were the only options. Since mail routes in our area were often 30 miles long, such slow going was impractical.

Bulk mail made it to the post office in our isolated mountain valley by train. As postmaster, my father, Claude Ballard, was responsible for getting it distributed to a huge area. From 1900 to 1920, winter mail deliveries were made by dog sled. In all those years, mail delivery was halted by severe blizzards only a couple of times.

Putting technology to work

In the early 1930s, Charlie Kramer, a new rural mail carrier in our area, sought a faster means of winter travel. Back then, the carrier was responsible for delivering the mail and it was up to him to figure out a way to do so. The Post Office provided no monetary assistance. At the time, Charlie owned a well-used 1928 Model A Ford Phaeton. To create a winter-worthy delivery vehicle, he invested in a track conversion kit produced by the Arps Corp., New Holstein, Wis. The Snow Bird kit was designed to enhance a vehicle’s ability to travel through snow.

Snow Bird kits added steel tracks to cars and small trucks of the era. The vehicle’s rear body had to be modified, and extra axles and wheels were added to support the track. Model T Fords utilized one more axle; more powerful cars like the Model A used two. A special cogged tire on the back gripped the track. Charlie could afford only the basic kit (two extra Model A wheels and tires on each side), and he built his own wooden front skis. A deluxe kit offered smaller wheels and tires that fit in front of the drive wheel, and custom-made steel skis. Because travel over snow took quite a lot of power, both kits included a gear reduction that fit on the rear axle.

Designed for use on about 6 inches of snow, the Snow Bird was not capable of travel through deep snow. Its performance was outstanding on snow-packed roads and it could negotiate most roads that were closed to ordinary traffic because of drifting.