Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dashing Through The Snow?

Come February, especially when the snow and ice seem never-ending, it’s often helpful to think about how the people who voluntarily lived in these northerly parts a century ago actually coped with it all. 

Could it have been as idyllic as the postage stamp above makes it out to be?

Consider the widow from Warsaw, New York. Here’s the story that got me thinking:

Just before the most recent snowstorm, I was cataloging a series of letters that had been written by an elderly widow over a span of several years in the first quarter of the 20th century.  Each letter was postmarked from the rural western New York village of Silver Springs in Wyoming County, where the woman “wintered” with her daughter’s family rather than live alone. The letters were addressed to the man who obviously worked as her handyman & house caretaker back in her hometown of Warsaw.

Each letter contained specific instructions for laying fires in the coal stoves to take the chill off the house and getting the plumber to turn the house water back on. There were also some basic cleaning and shopping requests to better prepare the Warsaw house for her return.  Most of the letters were written around mid-March, a time that can still be pretty wintery in western New York.  (Note: the legendary four-day Blizzard of 1888 began on March 11th).

The letters’ author noted that she would return home to Warsaw in late March, once her doctor son-in-law was able to put his automobile back on the road.  

"...put his automobile back on the road."  That’s when it struck me: during this time period, people with automobiles in the rural villages of New York rarely drove them during the winter because of the condition of the roads, most of which were still unpaved. Snowstorms, frozen road ruts, winter mud and auto travel were rarely compatible.   

After all, automobile owners had a lot of their hard-earned money invested in their vehicles and winter roads could do a whole lot of damage to their investment.

The “Good Roads” movement, sponsored by such diverse groups as the League of American Wheelmen and the National Highways Association, got seriously underway at the beginning of the 20th century.   However, it was mostly concerned with long-distance travel and with connecting cities with populations of 50,000 or more, not with paving the byways and country lanes of small towns and villages.  Rural people and their town governments were left to their own ingenious devices – generally to fend for themselves.

In fact, in most parts of rural New York and New England, our ancestors considered their tried-and-true horses and horse-drawn vehicles to be much more reliable for winter travel than their city cousins’ new-fangled automobiles. Snow plows – a creature of the automobile age -  were not yet a fixture on rural roads; however, in some areas, the snow roller was a familiar sight on the road after a winter storm.

Snow roller

This huge wooden barrel-like contraption, rarely seen by cityfolk, plied the country roads behind a team of horses, its great weight packing down the snow on the road into a firm hard-packed surface easily navigated by sleighs with runners, not wheels.  Thanks to the snow roller, travel over snow-covered unpaved roads in winter was not only possible but also comfortable. 

Here’s a photo of a horse-drawn snow roller.   

The original image is in the collection of the University of Vermont Libraries’ Center for Digital Initiatives, specifically the “Tennie Toussaint Photographs” collection. Check it out (along with the other images in the collection) and get a better understanding of living in the rural northeast at the turn of the 20th century.

These days, snow rollers – like horse drawn sleighs - are things of the past and are fast fading from the collective memory. Not surprisingly, most people have never heard of them, and few have ever seen one. Still, for those of us who are family historians, it’s useful to think about these commonplace albeit forgotten things now and again, if only to better understand how our ancestors lived their daily winter lives. 

Unfortunately, no amount of thinking about these things will actually get the piles of last storm’s snow off my 210 feet of sidewalk.  

Perhaps I should fashion a small "human-propelled", sidewalk-wide version of the snow roller?


  1. Here in New Hampshire folks used the rollers for places where the sleighs would be driven. Then they placed wooden planks, like board walks, outside the front door through the door yard and into the village or barnyard. That came in handy here because we have a fifth season- MUD SEASON!

  2. Wonderful post and images. And especially interesting as we negotiate this winter.