Snow on the roads in the old days

A snow roller at a museum in Vermont: The operator sat atop the roller as he controlled a team of horses pulling it.

All that snow recently made me wonder about how people dealt with big snowstorms in the days before machine-powered plows to clear the roads? Like in the 1800s.

In the old days in Ridgefield, snow was a boon, not a bane.

In the 19th Century, roads were not plowed to remove snow because snow generally improved the condition of the surface.

It was usually easier to slide a sleigh or sledge over snow than roll wheels through mud or even over hard ruts.  If temperatures remained cold, the more a road was used, the more packed down and harder the snowy surface became.

A horse could drag four times more weight on a sled across snow than it could on a wheeled cart over dirt. Sleds, sledges, sleighs, and especially “stone-boats” made carrying heavy loads over snow easier than any other method of local transportation.

In many areas, snow was so prized for its surfacing characteristics that main roads were rolled to pack and preserve the snow coating. The community roller was like a giant wooden barrel, with a driver on top and a team of horses to pull it.

In some places — such as on the floors of covered bridges — the snow was “imported” to cover the surfaces so that the runners would not drag over wood.

Even off roads, snow was useful. It allowed farmers to easily haul timber home from the woods to cut for firewood, to saw into lumber, or even to hew into railroad ties. Snow meant that “stone-boats” could remove large boulders from fields, and that other heavy-duty tasks could be accomplished.

Incidentally, wood was gathered in winter for couple of reasons, besides the slick surface. First and foremost, farmers had the time – there were no crops that needed tending. In addition, the winter woods lacked the thick underbrush that made movement among the trees difficult. Trees in winter were also easier to cut since the sap was not running.

Of course, a big problem with snow is that it melts. Thaws created slushy, muddy messes on dirt roads — and still do, as anyone who as dealt with “mud season” in Vermont knows.

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