Object Spotlight
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Ford Model-T Snowbird

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Photograph taken in February 1930 in front of the Cokato Enterprise newspaper office in downtown Cokato. The post office was to the immediate right of the center building.

Not long after automobiles and horsepower began to replace horses, the desire for a way to use automobiles year round followed. The snow across which horses could jauntily pull a sleigh was often too much of a challenge for automobiles. Foremost among those who needed to find a way to use their cars and trucks all year long were America’s rural letter carriers. After all, even if “neither snow nor rain or heat nor gloom of night” has never been an official postal motto, it certainly reflects the expectation that letter carriers and the mail will make the trip to our mailboxes, regardless of the weather.

Ford Model-T with snowmobile attachment

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Rural carrier Roy Aler of Harbor Springs, Michigan, stands by his Model-T Snowbird, 1931. A.2006-82, National Postal Museum

This 1921 Ford Model-T was owned by rural carrier Harold Crabtree of Central Square, New York. While Crabtree was able to use the car for his daily rounds most of the year, snowy days were an annual challenge. While many carriers held onto their horses and sleds for winter deliveries, Crabtree decided to try something new. After suffering through a few winters of using his back-up horses and sled instead of the car, he decided to buy the Model-T snowmobile attachment kit advertised as the “mailman’s special.” The kit included skis that replaced the front tires and caterpillar treads that wrapped around the back tires.

The attachment manufactured by Farm Specialty Manufacturing Company of New Holstein, Wisconsin, had its history in a series of designs and adaptations dating to the first decade of the 20th century. One of the most successful transformation kits was the work of inventor Virgil White. In 1906 White began trying to convert automobiles into snowmobiles using a Buick Model G. After the Model-T’s popularity made it the go-to car of the early 20th century, White turned his attention to creating a kit for that vehicle, devising a series of designs that he patented over the next few years.

Snowbird Advertisements

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This version of the ski attachment, called the A-44 Special was constructed solely for the 1926 Ford Roadster.
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Advertisement from White’s Snowmobile Company, Inc., for his attachment design.

By 1922 White was sure enough of his latest design to begin marketing it to the public and sold just over 70 kits in the next year. White sold the kits for $250 to $400 each, depending on size and complexity, from his new Snowmobile Company in West Ossipee, New Hampshire. A few years later White sold his snowmobile patents to the Farm Specialty Manufacturing Company which quickly recognized the kits’ appeal to rural carriers and advertised the attachment kit in postal association publications. Rural carriers across the northern United States were able to keep their cars on the road through the year thanks to the “mailman’s special.”

By Nancy A. Pope

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