Our forefathers were an industrious and rugged lot. When faced with problems or challenges, they invented the proper tool, implement, structure, or machine to overcome the issue.
Snow essentially caused a halt to travel in rural areas of the valley, even via horseback, at times. A solution was needed, and the “snow roller” was invented.
In the 1800s, people living in the northern regions of New England faced a perennial winter challenge: snow. Winter snow caused people to be isolated on their farms. It essentially caused a halt to travel in rural areas, even via horseback, at times. A solution was needed, and the “snow roller” was invented. Snow rollers did just what their name implies. Rollers were pulled over the snow-covered roads, packing the snow in place. This invention turned the snow from a problem into an asset. Wagons, carriages, and buggies could now trade their wheels for ski-like runners to slide across the snow and ice. The sound of the creaking, groaning snow roller was welcomed as it meant the roads would be open for winter travel.
The Era of the Snow Roller
Snow rollers were in use from roughly the 1880s through the 1930s. No one seems to know who initially invented the roller, nor when the first one was used. Today, a few rollers remain on display in public parks and in museums. Most of these rollers that proved to be so important for winter travel are, at best, a footnote in history books.
Due to their size and the relatively standard design of the rollers, they were generally made locally. For example, the Tamworth roller, currently at the Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm in Tamworth, was made by F. L. Blake from Stark, NH. Madison’s rollers were made by Parsons Brothers of Effingham Falls, NH. The Sandwich roller was manufactured in Laconia, NH. The cost of the rollers varied greatly. A Parsons Brothers receipt dated November 8, 1902 for the Madison rollers shows the town purchased two rollers at a cost of $50 each (about $5,000 each in 2018 money). Sandwich’s 1912 Annual Report shows they purchased their first roller in 1911 for $300, followed by three more in 1912. From an operations perspective, the cost of a roller was relatively inexpensive. Money would be needed for repairs, a driver’s stipend, and the cost of feed for the animals pulling the roller. A listing of the names of 25 men paid for “breaking snow” in the 1907 Annual Report for the town of Tamworth shows they were paid, on average, $8.80 each for a winter of cold work.
Snow Roller Design and Size
The earliest, most primitive rollers were often just made of a large, solid log. The more conventional rollers, however, were constructed of two drums or barrels generally made from oak “staves” bolted to spoked metal wheels. On some rollers, wood covers were fit over the outside of the metal spokes to prevent snow from getting inside the roller drums. An axle connected the two drums with a universal joint in the center that allowed each drum to turn independently. The universal joint was an important feature for navigating corners or reversing direction with the roller. The two drums were surrounded by a heavy wooden frame that rested on the outermost ends of the axle. Pivoting on the axle, this frame could move up and down, allowing the roller to operate on hills. Attached to the frame was a long wooden pole known as the “tongue.” Teams of oxen or horses would be attached to the tongue so they could pull the roller. There were usually two teams (pairs) of animals, depending on the snow depth and terrain; however, there could be as many as five teams. Atop the roller, a driver’s seat was affixed where one or two men drove the roller by controlling the teams. Some rollers carried ballast in the form of rocks in a “crib” on the very top or back of the roller. This added weight for the packing process, but generally, the weight of the roller alone was sufficient to get the job done. The design and construction of the snow rollers made for a sturdy implement that withstood the harsh winter conditions.
Snow essentially caused a halt to travel in rural areas of the valley, even via horseback, at times. A solution was needed, and the “snow roller” was invented
Snow rollers were made in many different sizes. The size of the roller drum being used depended on the average amount of snow that fell in a region and the terrain of the roads to be rolled. Rollers were sized by the diameter of their drums. In his book, The New England Year, Haydn S. Pearson recalls snow rollers of different sizes, writing, “There were small ones with barrels only four or five feet in diameter. There were gigantic ones, perhaps seven or eight feet in diameter. Four teams were often used to pull these.” Rollers used in the Mt. Washington Valley, as seen by the remaining rollers, were commonly five feet or better in size, making them easier to pull through deep snows. Rollers were usually 12 feet wide. This width would allow two wagons or sleighs to pass each other while remaining in their own lane. The lanes were established by a narrow strip of raised snow from between the roller drums. Rollers presented quite an imposing sight as they crept over the country roads.
Snow Roller Operations
The operation of a snow roller seems fairly simple. All you need to do is attach your team of horses and drive them down the road. The reality was quite different, however. In a narrative found in the Freedom Heritage Commission’s 2012 NH Division of Historical Resources Inventory for their roller shed, Donald Mitchell comments, “There were always two men perched on a bench well above those big wheels … Actually, it was a tough, hard job and took sturdy men to handle the teams and brave the cold.” The men needed to protect themselves from the severe cold and wind as they sat eight to 10 feet above ground.
In an article by Karen Cummings in the December 21, 1984 Mountain Ear periodical, she interviewed Gene Littlefield, a former roller driver, from West Fryeburg, ME. Describing his attire when driving the roller, he said, “There were some days when you’d wear just about everything you could get into when you went out. I wore wool—a wool union suit, wool pants, wool shirt, wool socks, wool coat. You couldn’t drive four to six horses with just mittens on so you had to have leather gloves. There was a lot of weight in the reins and it was exhausting just to keep the reins tight all the time.”
Rollers also required some additional manpower. The boys and men who supported the rollers were called “swampers.” Their job was to run ahead of or with the roller, or ride on the back of the roller. When the roller came to a section of drifted snow too high for the team to push through, the swampers shoveled the drift down to a packable height. According to Ray Elliott of Sandwich, whose grandfather drove one of the Sandwich rollers, prior to rollers, as many as 50 men shoveled the roadways. Still with rollers in operation, many men were needed to break through large deep drifts.
Snow rolling was a hard job for the animals towing the big rollers as well. They were under constant pressure to pull this roller weighing about 2,000 pounds through deep snows. After five to six miles of rolling, they were exhausted. Again, quoting Gene Littlefield, “It was the quickest way to kill a horse … . They could never let up. The team was always in collar—really exhausting.” Because of the strain on both men and animals, towns employed more than one roller, with each having a designated route. On each route, there were relief points where a farmer would offer a warm meal to the roller crew and would also care for their teams. Horses were sometimes added to the pulling team or swapped out for fresh animals. This was a neighborly thing to do, as people depended on each other in rural New England.
Where towns had snow rollers, they also had “snow wardens.” The job of the snow warden was to ensure that the rolling process was completed correctly, that holes in the snow roads were patched, and drifts that occurred after the initial rolling were removed. They were also responsible for ensuring that snow was shoveled onto the decks of the covered bridges allowing sleighs easy sliding over the bridges. This was an important job that would eventually disappear, as snow rollers were inevitably replaced with plows.
The boys and men who supported the rollers were called “swampers.” Their job was to run ahead of or with the roller, or ride on the back of the roller. When the roller came to a section of drifted snow too high for the team to push through, the swampers shoveled the drift down to a packable height.
The first rolling of the winter season generally required eight to 12 inches of snow to be on the ground. After that, rolling occurred with each new storm. As the roads were packed, they grew higher and higher with each passing storm. In the spring, the ice from the packed roads lasted for weeks and the roads were a muddy mess for even longer; the packed snow held the frost in the ground under the roads. Road agents were continually working to smooth the roads and neighbors helped pull stuck carriages out of the mud. Many times, during the mud season, people would walk on the stone walls lining the road to avoid the sloppy road surface.
When not in use, rollers were stored in roller sheds or barns. These sheds were often at the end of a roller’s route. Most of the roller sheds are gone today, but there is one prominent one in Freedom, NH that is listed on the State Register of Historic Places. This shed, one of three left in NH, is cared for by the Freedom Heritage Commission.
Freedom, NH's Snow Roller Shed
Freedom, NH has a unique building in their small, quaint village. They have one of the last remaining snow roller sheds in NH. In the time of their use, snow rollers served to open the roads for communities such as Freedom. When not in use, snow rollers were stored in sheds placed along the routes of the rollers.
Freedom’s roller was housed in their roller shed from 1902 to 1978. In 2012, the Freedom Heritage Commission took steps to renovate and save this historic building. In that year, they applied to the NH Division of Historical Resources for recognition for the building. This resulted in the building being listed on the State Register of Historic Places. After a subsequent renovation by local craftsmen and town volunteers, the building and commission was recognized by the NH Preservation Alliance with the 2018 Preservation Achievement Award.
Freedom’s original snow roller is now reportedly in the New York State Farm Museum in Cooperstown, NY. The next step for this building, according to Peg Scully, chair of the commission, is to find a snow roller for the roller shed.
Travel, Commerce, and Amusement on the Rolled Roads
Hard packed, snow roads held many advantages for people. Summer roads were rough and hard on wagons, as well as their riders—whereas frozen, rolled roads were smooth; some even considered them to be “soft.” With the improved road conditions, people often transported heavy loads, such as logs, ice, and bulk supplies over the snow roads. The snow roads also made ideal conditions for dog sledding and children sledding. In the 1974 book, Jackson Reminiscences, grade school students from Jackson interviewed several older Jackson residents. These residents talked about the times when they grew up in town. Mr. and Mrs. Edward March talked of their childhoods with Glenn Powers. The Marchs remarked about sledding on the rolled roads, saying, “People would start at the Castle on the Carter Notch Road, with high runner sleds. They would then slide all the way down the hill, and on a good day, they would slide to where the Wildcat Valley Country Store is now located.” In the same book, Mrs. Annie Hayes remarks to Eugene Roberts, Jr. that “… they used big rollers to pack the snow down. Six horses pulled the rollers. Albert McAllister used to drive the horses, and sometimes he would give the children a ride to school.” So not only did the rolled roads provide opportunities for commerce, but they also added a new element of play and fun for the children.
The Demise of the Snow Roller
The era of the snow roller began to come to an end in the late 1920s and through the 1930s. There were three major factors for the demise of the snow roller. First, automobiles were becoming more prevalent and people were replacing their horse and carriage with four-wheeled motorized transportation. While some automobiles were fashioned with sleigh runners, most people wanted year-round four-wheel driving. Second, road conditions were improving with an effort spearheaded by the Good Roads Movement that started in 1880 and resulted in the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. The NH Good Roads Association has been in existence since 1904. Finally, people were experimenting with different styles of plows that could push the snow to the road sides and allow for year-round automobile transportation.
Tractors and trucks were being adapted with plow rigs that cleared the roads much faster than the two-mile-per-hour rollers. The down side of the trucks with plows is that they were much costlier than the rollers. They also created piles of snow along the road sides, an issue that caused merchants some dismay because patrons could not get to their store fronts. As roads were paved, plowing became easier. During the 1930s, rollers and plows co-existed, but the plows eventually took over all snow removal operations. In Bartlett, for example, plowing with a tractor was first demonstrated in 1927, according to Aileen Carroll’s book, Bartlett, New Hampshire … in the valley of the Saco. Warren Schomaker, president of the Jackson Historical Society, noted that plowing began in Jackson in 1929. In Sandwich, the first plow was introduced in 1925 and rolling the roads was stopped in 1930. In other towns in the Mt. Washington Valley, plowing operations started in similar timeframes.
There are at least two Rollers in the Mt. Washington Valley that have been restored. The Jackson Roller was restored in 2006. The Bartlett Roller was restored in 2015. Both are resting in public parks. The Sandwich and Tamworth Rollers are Stored in Museum Buildings.
When the plows took over, rollers were abandoned. Some were stripped of their wood and the metal was used to support the WWII metal salvaging program. Other rollers were just burned. A scant few were put into barns and later “found.” They are now museum pieces. The roller at the Remick Museum is one such roller. This roller was found in a barn in Chocorua and acquired by a local collector. In 2009, it was donated to the Remick Museum. For several years, the museum hitched a team of oxen to the roller to demonstrate its use at their Winter Carnival and Ice Harvest. Today, however, they only bring the roller out of its barn for display purposes. Finally, other rollers were just pushed to the side and forgotten. Occasionally, these forgotten rollers are recovered and restored.
If you enjoyed being out in the winter cold, overseeing the work of snow roller crews, and ensuring the town’s roads were passable for sleighs, the position of “snow warden” was your calling.
Snow wardens were responsible for the oversight of the rolling process and condition of the roads. They needed to patch holes in the snow roads and ensure they were level. They needed to watch for drifting after the rolling occurred and get drifts removed. They were also responsible for seeing to it that the proper amount of snow was shoveled on to the decks of the covered bridges to allow the rollers to pack that snow.
This was important because sleigh runners would drag on the bare wooden bridge decks if they were left uncovered. Wardens also needed to be careful not to put too much weight on the bridge decks because an overweight covered bridge could collapse. Snow wardens were responsible for a section of road in their town, so each town may have employed more than one snow warden.
Roller restoration is an interesting task in modern times. There are no blueprints available, nor former roller makers with whom you can consult. Most restorers rely on old photographs of rollers and examples from other rollers on display. Being a part of a roller restoration, the most often asked question is, “How did they do this?” Trial and error and the same in-born ingenuity that created the rollers help modern restorers through the process. There are at least two rollers in the Mt. Washington Valley that have been restored. The Jackson roller was restored in 2006. The Bartlett roller was restored in 2015. Both are resting in public parks. The Sandwich and Tamworth rollers are stored in museum buildings.
The story of the snow roller has slipped into the shadows of history in New England and the Mt. Washington Valley. Very few rollers exist in the Valley when there is evidence that there were a great many in use roughly a century ago. Today, snow rollers are display pieces in parks and farming or transportation museums. In their day, however, they were a welcomed sight to the people of our region as they opened the snow-covered roads. Driven by rugged men and sturdy animals, the rollers represent another example of the never-say-die characteristics of a New Englander and our descendants in the Mt. Washington Valley. If you see a snow roller, stop and take a look at it as it represents a simple solution to a major impediment that confronted our forefathers.
Catch this article in the Winter 2018/19 digital edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe!