I REMEMBER…

1 / 3
Rest 60 with steel plow, location unknown. Courtesy Caterpillar Tractor.
2 / 3
Courtesy of Elliot Allison, Dublin, New Hampshire.
3 / 3
Holt 10 Ton and Sargeant snow plow operating at Hamburg, N.Y., February, 1925. Courtesy Caterpillar Tractor.

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.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment