Rural Mail Carrier Converts Ford for Winter Roads

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Our mountain valley gets at least 3 feet of snow every winter, as this photo of vehicles stored outside shows.
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The Snow Bird (converted from a Ford Model A) being transported to a regional Model A meet. In restoration, tires were installed on the front instead of skis so the vehicle could traverse dry ground.
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The snow tractor had to be salvaged immediately in spite of weather conditions or it would be cut up for scrap.
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A close-up of the Snow-Bird's well-worn metal tracks.
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Only a decided enthusiast could see any value in what was being hauled home.
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Leland's modified Model A Ford after returning from a 30-mile mail run.
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In the early 1900s, a branch of the Oregon Short Line Railroad was built in central Idaho and mail was brought in on the train. Deep winter snows required the railroad to use huge rotary snowplows on a regular basis to make the then-daily run.
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Leland Cluer with his unique vehicle.
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The only known photo of Charlie Kramer's Snow Bird in use. The headlights were tipped down as far as possible to provide visual help in keeping the vehicle on the road during white outs.
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In parts of Idaho decades ago, rural mail was delivered by dog sled. Mail carrier Lowell Fields (shown here) ran his route three times a week. This photo was taken in early April when the snow was almost gone.
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In the early years of the 20th century, large horse-drawn rollers like this packed down snow on roadways so sleighs and sleds could traverse them.

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Office Department was superseded by the U.S. Postal Service.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.

The converted Model A Ford
was so successful as a mail delivery vehicle that it was used for more than a
decade. Charlie estimated that he traveled between 40,000 and 50,000 miles
under practically all snow conditions in his Snow Bird. On examination of the
vehicle, that estimate appears realistic: The tracks show signs of several
rebuilds. Because most of those miles were traveled through totally unsettled
areas during inclement weather, dependability was essential.

Snow Bird’s second wind

When Charlie retired, the
Snow Bird was sold to a farmer who used it to feed cattle in the winter.
Unfortunately, failure to drain the cooling system resulted in a cracked engine
block. The old vehicle was parked and forgotten. Forty years later, on a cold
March day, I learned that it was about to be sold for scrap.

Not many people would see
any value in what was left of Charlie’s Snow Bird but the decision was made to
salvage the relic. It took a lot of effort to get it pried free from frozen,
snow-covered ground. Even then it proved almost impossible to load on a
tilt-bed trailer. The ancient, homemade wooden skis had long since rotted, and
the vehicle was almost unmovable. After a couple hours’ work, it was winched up
onto the trailer.

At home, the decision was
made to minimize restoration costs. We would make an effort to return the Snow
Bird to the condition it was in when it was retired from use as a mail delivery
vehicle. When the Model A was converted to a tracked vehicle its drivetrain was
already old, and then the vehicle was used for many years. The body was
homemade and had deteriorated some during its lifetime. If the Snow Bird could
be repaired to running condition and the nearly collapsed body repaired to
approximate what it looked like during use, the project would be considered a
success.

An eloquent voice from the
past

The crack in the engine
block was so bad that when water was poured into the radiator it ran out the
exhaust pipe. Since the Snow Bird would not be run long-term, we opted against
disassembly and instead used several applications of block sealer. The crack
was in the number three cylinder, so that spark plug was removed and the engine
was run on three cylinders so the sealant could run into the crack without the
compression blowing it back out. It sounded like a steam engine.

Amazingly, what was
obviously a bad crack was almost sealed. The engine could be run for an hour or
so before the motor oil was obviously contaminated by water, and that was good
enough. The dilapidated body was repaired with aged wood so it looks close to
original. Wheels were put on the front in lieu of skis since the vehicle needs
to be movable on dry ground. Wheels with decent tires support the track, and
since the vehicle won’t be used in the snow again, the lack of a cogged drive
tire is no problem.

Nearly 80 years after its
construction, Charlie’s Snow Bird lives again. It’s not beautiful or fancy, but
it is extremely unique, and it helps people today see how old timers met the
challenges they faced.

The mother of invention

When Charlie Kramer and his
snow tractor retired, a new carrier took the job. Leland Cluer faced the same
difficult terrain and harsh weather conditions his predecessor had. But after
World War II, the county road and bridge department obtained a military surplus
Austin-Western road grader. For the first time, isolated roads could be plowed.
This represented real progress. Previously, the best option available was a
heavy, horse-drawn roller used to pack snow on roads so sleds and sleighs could
more easily travel them.

But one grader could not
cover every road in the county. In the face of relentless storms that delivered
deep snow and high wind, one piece of equipment could not be expected to keep
more than a few main arteries open. The road roller remained in use on the
less-traveled roads that made up the mail route.

The new rural carrier came
up with a different solution to the challenge of snow-covered roads. Why not
equip a small car with very large, balloon-type tires? In that way, the
pressure applied to the ground was light enough to keep the vehicle on top of
the snow. Leland had no intention of traveling through deep, light, fluffy
snow. His goal was to drive on rolled and drifted roads (drifted snow is
typically firmer than loose snow).

If such a vehicle could be
built, it would have two major advantages. First, it could travel much faster
than a tracked vehicle in all conditions. Second, in early winter and late
spring part of the route would be snow-covered and the rest would be mud or dry
ground. The large tires could handle each with little difficulty.

War surplus to the rescue

A 1930 Ford Model A coupe,
more than 15 years old when conversion began in the late 1940s, became the
basis of the mail delivery vehicle. The only change made to the car’s
drivetrain was the addition of a rear axle gear reduction unit. Leland bought
several large balloon-type airplane tires (and the wheels they fit on) from war
surplus stocks. The wheels were modified so they could be bolted to the Model A
axles.

The car’s original fenders
had to be removed before the tires could be installed. But the muddy roads
encountered every spring meant fenders were essential. Making fenders and
fitting them to the car was a complicated job, but it was accomplished neatly.
As the photos show, the finished car was very presentable.

Steering presented a major
challenge. With all that rubber on the road, when the car was at a standstill
on dry ground it was impossible to turn the wheels. In motion, the steering was
hard but manageable. The biggest drawback was the car’s severely limited
turning radius. Even a slight turn of the steering wheel caused one of those huge
tires to rub on the frame. It is an exaggeration to say “it took a country mile
to turn it around” but the car’s turn radius was huge. Fortunately, negotiating
turns on regular roads was possible and the driver quickly learned to
anticipate problems.

Obsolete equipment

The product of an ordinary
farmer who took a mail delivery job, the big-tired Model A Ford proved a
success. Leland used the vehicle five days a week every winter and spring until
his death in 1957. At that time it passed to his successor on the mail route
and remained in use for the rest of that decade. By the late 1950s, the county
road crew had obtained several more pieces of snow removal equipment and was
able to keep the major roads open. At some point the modified Model A was retired.
I’ve tried to locate it, thinking it should be saved if it still exists, but
the trail has grown cold.

My father, who was the
postmaster when Leland carried the rural mail, told me the surplus wheels and
tires came off of a B-26 twin-engine bomber. World War II airplanes were
quickly removed from service after the conflict ended. Thousands were stored in
the desert, but as jet-powered aircraft became the norm the old planes were cut
up for scrap. It is logical to assume that B-26 bombers, which played only a
supporting role to the famed four-engine bombers like the B-17, were some of
the first to be disposed of.

Tires like those used on
Leland’s delivery vehicle disappeared with them. His car had been modified to
accommodate the tires; with no replacements available, it became useless. In
the early 1960s, old cars were just old cars. The 30-year-old car that couldn’t
even be moved was probably scrapped. However, if I keep searching, I may
someday stumble onto it stored in a shed somewhere. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard
has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent
working on his uncle’s dry land hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of
World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313
(and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email
at cballard@northrim.net.

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