Rural mail carriers faced unique challenges during long winters in deep snow on rugged terrain.
Our mountain valley gets at least 3 feet of snow every winter, as this photo of vehicles stored outside shows.
In 1971, the U.S. Post Office Department was superseded by the U.S. Postal Service.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.