Isherwood: ‘Model A’ Town Plow

The photo is from the Steir farm, circa 1944, Town of Bristol. The subject is a homemade snowplow consisting of a basic Model A coupe, with a sort of monster jungle gym attached. An oversize steel box attached to a sub-frame, all this in turn attached to the said Model A. On the front of the now-leviathan of a car is a V-plow, of the sort attached to a five-ton truck, if not a 10-ton truck, yet to include a wing plow on the driver’s side. All quite major league, routine enough on a town plow, not routine when attached to a car, a Model A. This plow frame entirely dwarfed the car, it had heavy duty cable pulleys to raise and lower the plows; this entire ensemble attached to this Model A qualified as the town plow of the Town of Bristol, circa 1944.

In case you don’t know, the town of Bristol is in Dane County, 15 miles northeast of Madison, the census of 2000 some 2,698 persons. The town hall is on 7747 County Road N, not to be confused with village of Bristol which is in Kenosha County. The current population is some 3,900, the legacy of Madison being just over the horizon, this east of Wheatland on Hwy 50.

I came across this snowplow photo in the renowned farm sector newspaper out of Waupaca. It is part of being a member of the official dirtball society to subscribe to a fleet of ag-oriented newspapers and magazines on the chance something interesting is going on. That maybe the price of corn will rise above $4 per bushel sometime in the next millennium. To report that after a lovely ethanol-scented, foreign sales detour, corn prices have settled into what looks a long sub-four-dollar trendline. Now to think adding center pivot to Nebraska corn wasn’t in the best interest of the Ogallala aquifer nor has it done a favor to the prospects of the corn market for the next thousand years. If perhaps I’m feeling a touch fragile. To cite the current estimate of the Ogallala’s life expectancy of another 100 years. I used to think 100 years was a long time only to realize I am now personally responsible for some majority of that span all by myself.

That photo brought to mind how it was in that age of invention and magic, before every pickup truck had 4-wheel drive, before Subaru with 4WD’s were scattered hither and yon with full time 4-wheel drive, same for some Audis and Beemers and Cadillacs even; SUVs of every type, stripe and pretension to include leather seats, CD players and make-up mirrors. Pickup trucks didn’t used to come with make-up mirrors.

As a personal gripe, I don’t know why there needs to be a luxury edition of the Jeep if you don’t do Jeepy things with that vehicle. I did report some years ago that Chicago area hardware stores sell spray mud for urban pickup trucks, so with a little spray-can flare one can look the part, like the truck touched actual dirt.

The number of hyperbolic manufacturers who now offer full-time 4-wheel dig is troubling because there’s no social payoff. If towns and cities and villages didn’t have to plow the roads every morning in winter I’d buy into the concept that 4 x 4 is everybody’s business. If we could cut road salt use to a minimum and stop polluting rivers, streams and groundwater with chlorides, I’d agree that Cadillac should offer a 4 x 4. Same for Buick, Mercedes, Porsche. To admit I’m sorta disappointed in Porsche, this being my hero-worship car company, who have seen fit to build a 4 x 4 Cayenne, list price $61,700. As I understand the core of the Porsche faith, wheel spin is what it’s about, including the chance to hang out your rear end and perform a four-wheel drift on some icy road…that is an art form in itself, without the need to exceed 145 miles per hour to gain the effect. The ice on the road doing that. Still I suppose we can’t have grandmothers with groceries or semi-trucks doing four-wheel drifts on our public roads.

I was reminded by the photo of the valiant efforts farmers once took to build their personal snowplow. My dad in 1928 converted what had been a Model T car to a Model T truck by hacking off the back end of the car and installing a plank bed in that vacancy. This truck had no roof and when equipped with another bolt-on plank to the front end served as a snowplow. This very procedure was once an official sport in farm-towns, to create snowplows out of cars that weren’t intended to be a truck, much less a snowplow. There were a lot of Model T and Model A conversions to which haphazard inventors added stuff like dual wheels by u-bolting two wood spoke wheels together. The nice thing about the open top plow truck was you didn’t have to worry about defrosting the windshield.

Our Uncle Harold was an inventive sort … to think Doktor Frankenstein was a close approximation. Uncle Harold equipped his plow truck with a hazard light, a homemade hazard light – a propane tank attached to a stove pipe, at the base was a pilot light and a shut-off valve. When he flipped the valve a six-foot long tongue of blue-orange flame exited that pipe pointed straight up. Worked just as well as those laser-blaster blinders used on modern squad cars that will blind you for the some two minutes same as exposure to a wild arc welder.

The homemade plow thing began to fail when legit manufacturers started offering 4-wheel drive. Only to mention in passing that a three-quarter ton truck loaded down with a ton of dead weight such as scrap iron or rocks gives a 2-wheel drive the same traction as 4-wheel drive with the added benefit the scrap iron could be unloaded in the spring. Downside being spring, when the town road was mud and accordingly bottomless and that extra ton in the bunk didn’t do you any favor. But most people knew better than to try to go anywhere at mud-time.

It was also our Uncle Harold who used dynamite to aid the business of snow plowing. He carried a case of “clay,” this what he called dynamite, in his truck that on meeting a drift bigger than his plow’s ambition he just over-handed a stick of dynamite into it. It was a darn bit of fun to go snowplowing with Uncle Harold. For the record he took off his mittens when throwing the dynamite, to improve his grip, he said. Owing that the dynamite was under the seat made you glad you weren’t wearing a seatbelt, a 15-second fuse isn’t that much time to get a good grip, enter the wind-up and heave that sucker far enough in front of the truck to avoid the shock wave.

When my brother who was on the Buena Vista Town Board told me how much the Town paid for their snowplow I told him that was the most disgusting lack of sport I ever heard. When a sundry Peterbilt or Mack equipped with some deadweight and plow, distributed among a few farmers in the township so all necessary plowing could get done inside of a week at a quarter the price. Besides, what with every house garage equipped with front wheel, radial tires, with 4-wheel drive, who needs to plow the roads anyway? Push come to shove, they can just hand out the dynamite.


Justin Isherwood is an award-winning writer, a Wisconsin farmer, humorist, author and contributor to numerous collections and publications including: Badger CommonTater, Isthmus, and Newsday. His books include: Christmas Stones & the Story Chair, Book of Plough, Farm Kid, and most recently, Pulse.

Article Comments