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  • by Karen Cummings

When Winters Were Winters

"It's got to be the most boring job you could ever get into, and the coldest, too, I'd rather have stayed home and played checkers."

No, Gene Littlefield of West Fryeburg isn't referring to snowmaking with that comment. Born in 1899, he's not quite spry enough to be out doing that, but he vividly remembers the many winters in his youth when he worked on the crews that rolled the roads to make them passable. "I went to work first as a 'swamper' running alongside the rollers when I was 15," he recalled. "The oldtimers didn't think anyone else could drive the horses so we were just there to help out if something went wrong. It was one job that was the most boring operation a man ever got into."

Before the common use of tractors and trucks, the approach to snow removal was entirely different. "In those days, you didn't try to get under the snow," Littlefield explained. "You just packed it down so horses could pull a sleigh over it." The snow would be compressed to a depth of five to six inches, and after freezing even more overnight, the road surface would harden so that even the horses wouldn't sink in it.

Cars started to gain in popularity early in the 20th century, but they still were rarely used for travel during the winter. "I got my first car in 1921, but would just put it up on blocks in the barn during the winter," said Littlefield.

"There were few cars around here then, but as soon as the first snow came, people would just jack them up for the winter," said Simeon Charles of Stow, Maine, a septugenarian who also worked on the snow rolling crews in his youth. "Some of the young fellows would try to go out in their cars," he added, "but they usually had to get pulled out by some farmer after they had rolled off into the soft snow by the side of the road. And if they met another car, one of them would have to take to the ditch to let the other by."

During the days when the winter roads were rolled rather than plowed, the residents of northern New England enjoyed a different lifestyle. Living in rural communities, early residents had to band together more as a community to battle harsh elements, especially through the winter. Rolling the roads was a group effort with the "road commissioner" of each area getting support from residents all along his stretch of road.

Rollers were comprised of two huge drums made out of wood, usually oak for weight and endurance. It was necessary to have two separate drums so the contraption would have some flexibility and be able to adjust itself to the differing heights in the crown of the road. Each of the drums were usually six feet in diameter and approximately six feet wide. With one pass, they were able to clear the road wide enough for two teams to pass each other. "It would leave a little ridge in the middle of the road," explained Charles, "but the runners of sleigh could just straddle it."

Horses were used to pull the heavy cylinders and compress the snow as oxen were considered too slow. "In those days, everyone had a horse," he added.

"It was the quickest way to kill a horse," said Littlefield. "They could never let up. The team was always in the collar--really exhausting." On a light storm, four horses would be hitched to the rollers, but if there was any "heft to it," Littlefield said they often used six and sometimes eight horses. "There was nothing that could kill a horse faster than wallowing in that snow." he added.

"There were some days when you'd wear just about everything you could get into when you went out," said Littlefield. "I wore wool--a wool union suit, wool pants, wool shirts, wool socks, wool coat. You couldn't drive for to six horses with just mittens so you had to have leather gloves. There was a lot of weight in the reins and it was exhausting just keeping the reins tight all the time."

The rolling crews often ran into places where the horses couldn't get through. "I don't know whether the winters were rougher back then, but they certainly seemed to be," said Charles. "There was a good deal more open country and we had lots of trouble with drifts."

"The worst problem was with drifts," explained Littlefield. "You'd run into drifts 10 feet deep and then you'd have to use manpower to shovel them out."

Neighbors came in handy. Rolling the snow was a slow operation--small storms took a day to clear, but more substantial accumulation would sometimes take a few days to a week. "We'd move alongat about two miles an hour," said Littlefield. Both the men and horses had to be rested along the way. "It would get to be lunch time and so you'd pull up at some farmer's house if you could," Littlefield recalled. "The horses had to be taken care of first and so you would put them in the barn and feed them and brush them down. Sometimes you would even trade teams or add more horses for the rest of the trip."

Littlefield remembered an extra benefit to stopping at a farmer's house for lunch. "We made about 75 cents a day then and if you were lucky enough to find some farmer to feed you, you gained another 35 right there."

Local farmers welcomed the road crew. Winter meant a less busy time for the rural residents who usually had free afternoons after completing their morning chores and they welcomed visitors to help while away an afternoon. "Visiting for an afternoon was often the only winter entertainment for a family--they'd pack up and go to a neighbor's for the day," said Charles. "People visited a lot more in those days than they do now."

Just as New England was once dotted with one-room school houses, so was it dotted with roller houses, which were built at intervales all along the road to shelter the rollers. This kept them out of the elements and prolonged their life.

"We had three roller houses in Chatham," said Charles. "One up in North Chatham, one down here in the center, and another down in South Chatham." These houses were built approximately six or seven miles apart, illustration thatr each roller only covered a short stretch of road.

Although their method of clearing the roads may seem primitive by our standards, this did not keep the people who lived during that time homebound during the winter. "People thought nothing of heading out during the winter," said Charles. "I can remember them getting a big sleight, with lots of blankets and hitching up four horses and then stopping at every house along the way to East Conway, picking up people for a dance or a Grange meeting or something."

The winter even opened up areas for travelers. Although the road through Evans Notch wasn't built until the '30s, during early winters, Chatham residents would hitch up a sleigh and follow a roughed-in road to Gilead, Maine, for dances.

The spring, however, brought mud season, and a different story for the rural travelers. Mud season isn't fun with paved roads and by all reports, it was horrible when the roads were still comprised of that substance. "Rolling the roads helped to prolong mud season," said Frank Eastman of Chatham, at the time a worker on the New Hampshire state road crew. "It kept the snow there, drove the frost deeper and kept the ground wet. I can remember people saying that it had been a dry spring if they could drive from Fryeburg to Evan's Notch by the fourth of July."

Neighbors once again came in handy. Teams of horses were regularly used to pull the "modern" automobiles out of the muddy roadways. "When the snow started melting, you had to stay home because all you had was slop and water," said Littlefield. "The only thing you could do was to wait for the Almighty to clear it."

The increasing popularity of the automobile brought about the end of the snow-rolling era. In 1927 and 1928, local communities bought tractors to remove the snow, adopting the modern method of getting underneath it and taking if off the roadway. More and more roads were paved and traveling by sleigh became a thing of the past.

"When I was a child we had wagons for summer and fall and sleighs for the winter," said Littlefield. "It was prettier then," he added, "but I'm not complaining. If you think the roads are sometimes rough now, you should have tried getting around in the spring on a muddy road a logging sled just went over. Roads are 100 percent better now."

Author's note: This was one of my favorite stories to research and write. Getting to interview people born in the 19th century with memories of such a different era was a special treat.

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