Bookmark and Share

Moving The Mailman’s Special

Ford Model T with red snow tires
Snowbird formerly on display

How many people does it take to move a Ford Model-T? The answer is: 11; four to actually do the work and 7 to stand around staring in amazement and anticipation. After almost 20 years of being on exhibit, the Ford Model-T, lovingly called the “Snowbird”, has been removed and sent to storage. The Snowbird, weighing 1800 pounds and measuring 73in x 60 ½in x 144 ½in (height x width x length), was so called after the interchangeable skis and tank-like tread that helped it travel through snow; it was advertised as being the Mailman’s Special. In the early 1990s, when the Postal Museum was built, the Snowbird was placed in its exhibit location (the future gallery on Rural Free Delivery Service) while construction continued around it, eventually trapping it inside the exhibition. When the museum staff decided it was time to change out that exhibit, removing the Snowbird became a major undertaking. It would not fit through any doorways, so the only option was to remove walls.

Shelter post-demolition
Shelter post-demolition

When faced with the fact that an object will be within a demolition zone, the number one priority is to protect that object. The Preservation staff hired Artex Fine Art Services to build a sturdy wooden shelter around the Snowbird. The sheer size of the wood needed to build the barrier already made this a very daunting task, but with the employees from the Preservation department hovering over to make sure nothing would touch the Snowbird, made it even worse. However, the Artex staff was great, took their time and did a fabulous job! Then, demolition began.

During demolition, the Preservation team could only hope that the Snowbird remained unscathed as the space was now off limits. Hearing the sound of walls collapsing did not help the nerves. Once the wall was down, there was a sense of relief upon seeing the shelter still intact and the Snowbird unharmed. It was now time to get it out, on a truck and to a storage facility.

men moving the Model T through the atrium
Traveling trans-Atrium

Artex showed up with four men, four lifts, plywood, foam and anything else they could possibly need to begin the task of removing the vehicle. The first challenge was deconstructing the wooden shelter that had protected the Snowbird. This process took about an hour to ensure none of the plywood pieces would accidently scratch the object. The second challenge was removing the Snowbird from its raised platform…covered with artificial snow. The plan was to slide the Snowbird over the artificial snow and onto a large pallet, which was raised to the platform’s height using three lifts. The artificial snow was bumpy and unyielding and overlapped the Snowbird tread and skis, requiring the staff to chip away at the snow. All this created a less-than-ideal surface for moving the Snowbird. As a solution, plywood was used to make the surface smooth. However, the Snowbird still would not move; it was in gear with possibly a parking brake on. Since no one on staff had any knowledge of how to operate a Ford Model-T, one staff member Googled for instructions and was successful. With the Snowbird finally in the right gear, the plywood laid and the dollies and lifts in place under the vehicle it was finally ready to be moved. This was a long and tedious process. The Snowbird did not just roll onto the pallet as it does not have any wheels. By utilizing lifts, dollies and manpower and along with much maneuvering, the Snowbird finally made it onto the pallet; the pallet was then lowered to the ground. But this only meant that one step of the removal processes was completed!

workers clearing the Model T off the loading dock
Clearing loading dock

The Snowbird and its pallet are so large they would not fit through the only accessible doorway. After measuring we discovered that removing the doors would give us that crucial few inches to get the Snowbird out the door, but not the pallet. The Snowbird was taken off the pallet using lifts and placed on dollies and rolled out the door and the pallet was turned at an angle to fit through the doorway. The gallery where the Snowbird lived all those years is located on the complete opposite end of the museum from the loading dock, meaning that the Snowbird was rolled across the entire atrium and through another exhibit to get to the loading dock. The museum was open at the time, so many visitors got to see its trans-atrium journey, creating lots of excitement. Once on the loading dock, the Snowbird was placed back on the pallet. While the Artex crew worked on securing the Snowbird to the pallet, the Preservation team quickly dusted the vehicle and examined it for any damage. The Snowbird came out of the process completely unscathed, except for some foam from the artificial snow stuck to the skis and chains.

loading the Model T into the moving truck

Loading into moving truck

The fine-art handlers brought a moving truck large enough to put the museum’s truck (Snowbird) inside. However, their truck was too big to fit in the museum’s loading bay and was only able to come half way up the buildings loading dock, about 20 yards away from. So the Snowbird, on the pallet, was lowered from the museum’s elevated dock onto the floor of the bay. Using the same technique to raise and lower the platform inside the gallery, lifts were used to hold the pallet level with the loading dock until the Snowbird was completely off the ledge and then lowered onto dollies. The pallet on dollies was then rolled to the moving truck. For the last time, the lifts were used to raise the pallet, with the vehicle, onto the moving truck. The Snowbird was secured inside the truck for transport and then it was gone.

After nearly 20 years of being on exhibit and catching the eye of millions of visitors, the Snowbird will have a rest. It will remain in storage until the museum staff decides to put it back on display. Until then, visit and learn about the Snowbird on Arago.

For more information: NPMPreservation@si.edu

Additional Imagery