Tire chains, sleds and snow in the good old days

I once worked with a guy who fancied himself a comedian. One sunny morning he said to me: “It’s gonna be tough sleddin’ today!” “Why?” I asked, taking the bait. “There’s no snow!” he answered triumphantly.

This winter it’s been tough sledding for kids in most of the northern parts of the country that usually have snow to spare, while youngsters in areas that seldom see the stuff, such as the Carolinas, have been able to get in at least a little sliding.

Differences

One of the common failings of we geezers is that we firmly believe kids today have it much better than we did. Back then, the chores were more difficult, the distance we had to walk to school was farther and school was harder, the summers were hotter, the winters were colder, and of course the snow was deeper.

It does seem that we had a lot more opportunities to sled-ride back in the day, and every kid had a sled of some kind and spent hours outside in freezing cold, speeding down hills and wearily trudging back to the top for another brief downhill run.

While there probably wasn’t really more snow, it did last longer on the roads, where it was packed down by traffic and made excellent sledding, especially on the hills of western Pennsylvania where I grew up. There was rarely a snowplow on our rural township roads and no one thought of using salt, even on the main highways, although they were usually plowed.

Every home had at least one coal stove, so there were lots of ashes, which worked well to make paths and sidewalks safe. The state highway department hauled ashes from nearby steel mills and scattered them by hand at intersections and on some of the steepest hills.

Travel

Our dirt township roads never saw any ashes and roads stayed snow covered for a long time. Everyone carried a set of tire chains in their vehicles, and when unable to proceed due to spinning wheels it was time to get out in the snow and worry those chains onto the rear tires. I got so I could get my chains on and be on my way in 15 or 20 minutes, without getting too wet or dirty.

One of the common winter sounds that no one hears any more was the persistent and harsh music made by a passing car with a broken cross chain. Every time the wheel went ’round the ends of that broken cross chain slapped against the fender.

A box of repair links that we called “monkey links” was always carried in the glove compartment for such emergencies, and you had to stop and rejoin the broken cross chain with one of these links. If left to batter the fender, the broken chain would soon beat a hole through the metal.

Problem

As long as tire chains were run on muddy or on snow covered roads, they didn’t wear out very fast but, inevitably, the main roads became bare, while the back roads were still slippery. The temptation to run across bare pavement with your chains on was strong, and this is what quickly wore the cross chains to the point of breaking.

Now, getting back to sledding, we had a regular, steerable sled with steel runners that would really fly on the packed snow roads, unless you hit a patch of slag or ashes. Luckily, in those days there wasn’t much traffic on those back roads and we didn’t worry about being hit by a car (of course, being kids we didn’t worry about much of anything).

The steel runners weren’t much good in deep snow, however, and while we didn’t have a saucer or toboggan, we found a great substitute.

The man that owned the farm next door had bought a pile of reject enamel table tops from an enameling company in Beaver Falls. He wove steel wire around the narrow tops from slide-out table leaves to construct a fence along the road we had to traverse to get to the main highway.

That multicolor fence aggravated my mother a good deal — she thought it was tacky, and I reckon it was. He gave us kids one or two of the larger table tops and we saw the possibilities immediately. Somehow we bent up each end of one of the tops, leaving the shiny enamel side down, attached a wire to pull it by, and headed for the “Hill Field.”

Speedy ride

After struggling to the top of this large snow-covered field, we climbed aboard and pushed off. That thing would fly! Of course there was no way to control it — just hang on and enjoy the ride. We had a lot of fun on that table top and never got hurt, although I heard later that while sliding, a neighbor boy had lost the tip of his finger when it somehow got sliced off by the edge of a top.

We would come in after hours of sledding, frozen stiff, just like our soaked gloves and outer garments that we stripped off and hung by the stove to dry, while we ourselves huddled around it soaking up the heat. I imagine we slept well on those nights.

I suppose some kids still sled-ride when able, although TV and computer games, and overprotective parents, probably keep many inside. Tire chains are virtually obsolete due to snow tires and road salt; the owner’s manual of my wife’s car warns that tire chains should not be used as there’s insufficient clearance for them between the fenders and the tires.

I’m sure no one misses them much, they were a pain to put on and take off, and tough to keep in repair, but they did get us through snow, ice and mud that would paralyze today’s traffic.

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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