Vintage Snowmobiles Bring By-Gone Age to Milton

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Story & Photos by Mark Foynes

Paul LeBlanc stands proudly by his 1918 Model-T Ford, which has been outfitted with a West Ossipee snowmobile converter kit. He was among the enthusiasts who converged at the Milton Town Beach recently to meet with fellow enthusiasts and provide rides for the general public at no charge.

The atmosphere was upbeat. The Milton Historical Society added to the festivities and the spirit of local heritage. As a fundraiser for their non-profit, Society volunteers served hot dogs, popcorn, and grilled cheese sandwiches donated by The Pink House restaurant.

Snowmobiles at the event were of the original sort - converted Ford Model-Ts and Model-As. Many of them rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly lines a century ago as road vehicles. They were inexpensive, dependable, and easy for the dooryard mechanic to fix. Historically, these early cars handled poorly in the snow.

A Little “Snowmobile” History

Back in 1917, Virgil D. White operated a garage and Ford Dealership in West Ossipee. This was a time when winter road maintenance was geared more toward horse-drawn sleighs. Roads were not plowed. Rather, town agents combed the roads with massive wooden rollers to compact the snow and ice. It was perfect for sleigh blades. Not for cars.

This was an age before four wheel drive and snow tires. Virgil, in talking with customers, noted that early motorists had difficulty traversing New Hampshire’s winter roadways. It was the beginning of the automotive era, and a period of transition.

This was especially the case with folks who needed to be out and about in bad weather conditions, such as electric linemen and doctors who made house calls, sometimes in very remote areas.

Virgil White had a light bulb moment. He reckoned that replacing the front tires with a set of skis, adding a rear-end axle, and fitting the rear wheels with treaded tracks could help folks navigate the ice and snow. He devised a conversion kit that allowed motorists to turn their daily drivers into “snowmobiles.”

While snowmobiling is now considered a recreational activity, having a motorized method of transport in the snow was a game changer. Logs could be hauled more easily out of the woods. Sickly patients could receive desired care. And newly-electrified homes could be rewired when the lights went out.

A Henry Ford hood ornament on a Model-T snowmobile that was recently on display on Milton Three Ponds. The snowmobile was in West Ossipee. The rally took place as part of town's annual winter carnival.

A Henry Ford hood ornament on a Model-T snowmobile that was recently on display on Milton Three Ponds. The snowmobile was in West Ossipee. The rally took place as part of town's annual winter carnival.

White charged $395 for each kit. According to the website managed by Measuring Worth, this cost in 1918 equates to $4,350 in terms of today’s spending value. So the conversion kit, while brilliant, was not an impulse buy. 

In 1917, White devised the kit. The following year, he applied for a patent and copyrighted the term “Snowmobile.” By 1922, he’d negotiated an agreement with the Ford Motor Company, which had exclusive sales rights through its dealerships.

Fun at the recent snowmobile event

As my family and I drove to the event in Milton, there were bob houses aplenty. We even saw a fisherman working an auger to drill a fishing hole through the pond’s frozen surface to angle his quarry. Some fishermen were successful, walking along carrying buckets with some good sized perch, trout, and bass.

The event kicked off at 9:30 am. Among the early arrivals was Paul LeBlanc, who showed off his one-ton 1918 Model-T snowmobile. He trailered up his rig from Brentwood in the Southern Tier and noted that his machine was original, including a vintage West Ossipee conversion kit.

The only exception are the tracks - bright yellow. Clad with the original metal grippers, they do kind of stand out.

 “They’re rubber re-fabbed from old firehose,” he said. LeBlanc explained that fire departments can only use a hose for just so long and then it goes to auction. While not original, looking at the refab, we channeled the spirit of Henry Ford, who was known to innovate using the materials at hand. 

“Henry would be proud,” we said, pointing to the tracks.

“I’d like to think so,” LeBlanc chimed in, standing beside his one-ton rig.

He noted that he acquired the Ford several years ago and spent “six or seven years” collecting the necessary parts.

 “It’s a passion and kind of a bug,” he explained in describing how he got involved. He was one of several folks who brought their snowmobiles to put on display.

We also caught up with Peter Quinn from York, Maine. He owns a Model-A that he acquired from an old-timer from Sanford. 

Quinn noted that snowmobiling on the ice is wonderful; but he urged caution. Recalling his 12-year stint with the Newington Fire Department, he said vintage and modern snowmobiles are a great source of recreation, but that those going out on the ice should be aware of the risks of taking machinery on the frozen water.

 “It’s a little apples and oranges, because that’s salt water,” Quinn said, adding that ocean water freezes less quickly and has more places where there are thin ice.

Paul LeBlanc was joined by his brother Ken. His 1926 Model-T came from a dairy farm over in Vermont, and the snowmobile converter kit came from another. Everything on Paul’s machine is authentic.

We brought our daughter, Cadie and her “bestie” out onto the Pond to check things out. Both 10 years old, they had fun slip-sliding on the ice. Ken invited the girls to hop on the back of his 1926 Model-T. They literally jumped at the chance, leaping about three feet into the bed of his converted truck.

 “C’mon,” Ken urged me. I was planning to hang back and just chat with some of the other exhibitors who came out. In a blink of a moment, I decided I couldn’t fully tell the story without the experience of going out for a cruise on one of these rigs. So I hopped on back alongside the girls, and off we went.

Ken was generous with his time: we did nearly a full round of the Pond. 

One might think that snowmobiling along a frozen pond would be pretty smooth. 

Nope.

Currents in the water, precipitation, and thaw-and-freeze cycles can create bumps akin to frost heaves on terra firma.

Model-T’s didn’t have suspension systems like our modern vehicles. Rather, they had leaf springs not too different from what you’d find on a horse-drawn buggy. We were in for a bumpy ride and lots of giggles, confident of Ken’s sturdy hands at the wheel.

About 30 seconds into our ride, we found a bumpy spot on the ice, and all of us were jostled upwards maybe a quarter of an inch from our wood-paneled seats.

The next bump was bigger.

“That was a good one,” my daughter Cadie exclaimed.

Her bestie said, “I hope the next one is bigger.”

It was and I stopped taking notes, unable to write legibly.

Nonetheless, the ridee, which many had a chance to experience, was great. 

The overall event was sponsored by the Milton Parks and Rec department - one of several events it supports over the course of the year. Each year the department plans a two-day winter carnival. For a calendar of upcoming events, visit miltonnh-us.com/milton-parks-recreation

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