Bernard A. Drew: Plowing when winter was winter

Saturday February 2, 2013


When I was a youth snow was piled a dozen feet high in front of the house most winters. I grew up in the hilltown of Windsor, where the season was perhaps a third more intense than in the valley. But living in the gatehouse of the Arthur and Helen Budd estate Notchview, we never worried about getting out to the highway. The colonel owned a mustard-yellow International Harvester T6 crawler tractor, a 1959 model, I think. It could clear a path to Route 9 no matter what a blizzard brought. But if Route 9 was blocked, we weren’t going anywhere anyway.


Berkshire County owned a bulldozer, garaged it in Adams and put it in service as needed in that town, North Adams and the Mohawk Trail. The tractor cleared roads to the hospital in the aftermath of a wild snowstorm in January 1927. Plus, "about 40 men were added to the list of city employees to shovel snow, and by noon the principal streets were available to vehicles. Horse-drawn sleighs were the only ones to ascend the hills without difficulty," according to the Springfield Republican for Jan. 17.

Oscar R. Hutchinson had charge of Lenox roads, and "was so exhausted from the work and strain this afternoon that he became unconscious in his office and was removed to his home that year. County Commissioner Robert S. Tillotson of Lenox was also out all night directing the work on Jacob’s Ladder. Searles High School students in Great Barrington who had played an evening basketball game at the Pittsfield Boys’ Club couldn’t get south of the Aspinwall Hotel in Lenox, until another county tractor plow broke through the next day.

Lee had tried a tractor plow in 1923, with mixed results. The problem was the machine was ordered late, was not maintained and was not in good running condition until several snowfalls had created huge, packed drifts. Snow was 14 feet on the road to Otis. "Not withstanding all this, the majority of the people appear to want tractor service more now than before," the Republican said that January.

To handle its end of the Mohawk Trail in 1926, North Adams Public Works Commissioner Eolus Doble and Foreman John Miller took the county’s tractor. "The plow piled snow against the fence on one side and into the ditch on the other. At one point near Lenhoff’s souvenir house the snow was pushed over the wooden fence," the Republican said.


The town of Florida had a reliable Cletrac 40 it had purchased from dealer E.T. Shaw in Pittsfield for $1,700 in 1927. Crawler plows were vital, but also dangerous. Florida Selectman Samuel Martin was killed when a five-ton tractor ran over him during snow removal in March 1931. The accident took place on the road to the Hoosac Tunnel. A dozen men were at work with shovels, ahead of the plow, trying to clear a path. Martin was behind the plow when it backed up, and ran over him.

A state tractor plow with Carl A. Wallin at the tiller cleared the Washington road in Hinsdale in March 1926, and aimed to widen the way south to Bonny Rigg Corner in Becket -- or until it met another tractor coming the other way. At the same time -- talk about anachronisms -- Ralph Bellinger was clearing town streets with horse and plow.

Winter 1928 was fairly normal in Windsor. Some 30 automobiles became stuck in the 3-foot drifts, trying to ascend Route 9 from Dalton. They had to wait until Bill Estes, the road superintendent, could get out the biggest snowplow and clear the road. The town in 1941 or thereabouts purchased a gigantic Allis-Chalmers track plow, Charles F. Sturtevant (a former schoolmate) told me. In his years as a selectman, he became familiar with the old tractor. The V-plow on the front was 12-feet wide and 7- feet high. The wings were 5- feet wide.


"When we were kids, it was used every big storm," Sturtevant recalled.

Windsor was particularly prone to snow drifting across the roads. To clear it, the driver steered the mechanical beast with levers from a hard bench seat inside the unheated cab. (After a while, they found a way to heat the enclosure.) An assistant sometimes rode along to activate the wings. The tractor was important to opening roads to dairy farms, which needed to ship their milk daily.

The farms are gone now, and so is the Allis-Chalmers. It was last used in the 1980s, Sturtevant said. A combination of milder winters, fields grown to brush (thus cutting down on drifting) and bigger, stronger and speedier truck plows resulted in its removal from the town fleet. A lumber mill owner in Goshen bought it, and still had it parked outside as of last August, he said.

"Now we have wing-plows on all the trucks," Sturtevant explained. "Plus, the last time it went out, the heavy treads on the Allis-Chalmers gouged the pavement on Route 9. The state didn’t like that."

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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