Eye of the Archive: Whoa, the Snow Screw

Hi again, it’s me AB just finally emerging from holiday hecticness, whew. But there’s not much cooler of an artifact to wake me up from my holidaze than the one I’m going to tell you about now…

This week the Aspen Historical Society staff left me behind to go to Buttermilk and check out progress with the Snow Screw. Yes, you read that right, the Snow Screw. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed to get left behind. To satiate my sadness, I decided to do some research about this Snow Screw that everyone is just sooooo excited about. Let me tell you, as soon as I saw this YouTube video I was HOOKED. So I dug deeper into my research. Here is what AHS knows about the Snow Screw:

In 1991, Steve Knowlton donated a Snow Screw to the Aspen Historical Society collection. The early snow machine was designed and built by Denver-area mechanic Marty Keller for DRC Brown Jr. in the late 1930s. With the onset of WWII, Darcy brought the machine to Aspen. It is unclear how the Snow Screw was used during that period, but Darcy ultimately gave it to Steve in the 1950s to display at his restaurant on the front range, Cafe Kandahar. When the restaurant closed, the Snow Screw ended up at Buttermilk circa 1990. Over the years, it has been stored in various locations in the Roaring Fork Valley. In 2017, Aspen Historical Society raised funds to purchase a trailer to transport the Snow Screw. After it was displayed in Wagner Park during the World Cup events in Aspen, the Snow Screw returned to Buttermilk in a collaboration between Aspen Ski Company and AHS to restore the artifact to working conditions.

snow screw

Marty & Florence Keller sit on the Snow Screw in 1983.

When the crew got back from Buttermilk they were buzzing. The “wonderful” team working on the machine had shown them progress thus far and explained more about the mechanics. I gather the Snow Screw measures 6 feet by 9 feet. It features a Ford flathead V8 engine and a gas tank from a Model T that dates back to 1918. The design allows the machine to move across snow using two large pontoons moving in spiral motion to propel the machine forward. Yes, they “screw” the snow. The vehicle is thought to be a first generation snow machine, likely one of very few that were produced. In my research I found a letter from DRC Brown to Keller’s daughter Annette: he explained that the Snow Screw worked well on flat terrain but wasn’t as successful as hoped on steep terrain. Also in the letter, Darcy explains he had applied for applied for a patent for the technology and learned that Henry Ford had already patented the idea. Shoot.

But the gang tells me the machine is really close to running! A launch party and regularly scheduled programs with the machine are in the works. I’m borderline obsessed at this point, it’s just an incredibly unique and curious artifact (not to mention I’m a closet gear-head)! I promise to keep you posted as the restoration nears completion.

A.B.
(Archive Building)

Aspen Historical Society is grateful to the donors who have supported the Snow Screw: the Iselin Foundation, the Ruth H. Brown Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the Cerise and Beck families.Thanks also goes to Aspen Skiing Company, especially Donny Mushet, Jeff Jensen and their team at Buttermilk for restoring the Snow Screw.

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