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  Bill Barry

Karl E. Lorch was a tinkering sort of guy. In fact, he was the sort of tinkerer that Saskatchewan has spawned dozens of over the years - a guy with a practical and inventive mind who saw a problem and did something about it.

We Saskatchewanians love to complain about our highways, and many of them are not as smooth as one would like. But at least they're just about always passable.

Such was not the case when Karl was a young man living in the village of Spy Hill just north of the Qu'Appelle Valley and only eight miles from the Manitoba border. Roads were few and far between in Karl's day, and those that did exist would be rendered virtually impassable by rain or snow.

Karl never did solve the mud problem, but he thought there had to be a way to beat snow. For his first attempt (in 1928), he and his friend George Thorpe converted a Model T Ford into a funny looking little buggy with skis on the front and a couple of tracked wheels on the back. It could chug along if the snow was not too deep, but it certainly was not the "answer" that Karl was looking for.

The airplane, still a novelty in the late 1920s, provided Karl with his next inspiration. Why couldn't an airplane propeller, he reasoned, be used to scoot a vehicle over snow? Not many people had much faith in Karl's idea. Even his own father thought he was nuts and insisted that any tinkering Karl did on his idea be cleared out of the Spy Hill Garage before they opened for business the next day.

Karl Lorch with his first 'snowplane', in 1929.
- courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
Karl Lorch with his
first 'snowplane', in 1929.

But Karl persisted. He built a sort of sled and attached a propeller, driven by a Ford engine, to the rear. When he first started it up next to the shop, it just sort of sat there and made a lot of noise. His Dad smirked with an "I told you so!" look. Karl pushed the sled away from the shop so that it got better air flow, and it started to scoot down Main Street in Spy Hill!

The rest, as they say, is history. Karl pursued his links to the world of flying machines and soon developed a design that was based on the tubular steel construction favored by the aircraft manufacturers of his time, along with the cloth sheathing that also graced airplanes through the 1940s. He coined the word "snowplane" for his vehicles, secured patents, and manufactured and sold them across northern North America.

A couple of American rural mail carriers got interested in the Lorch snowplane in the late 1930s. The result was that Karl linked up with a garage owner in Wolford, North Dakota, and manufactured his snowplane south of the border as well, until the United States' entry into World War II in late 1941 made it too difficult to procure parts and skilled labor.

The garage where Karl worked by day and tinkered by night.
- courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
The garage where Karl worked by day and tinkered by night.

Karl's American operation produced one significant innovation. The Lorch snowplanes were particularly popular with rural mail carriers, but our American friends are not used to snow the way we Canadians are. So Karl developed a model that had both wheels and skis. If there was snow, you used the skis, if not, you lowered the wheels. In one interesting demonstration that resulted in several sales during a visit to the U.S., Karl turned off the engine of the car that was towing one of his snowplanes on a trailer, turned on the snowplane engine, and used it to propel the car, the trailer and the snowplane through the town!

But the expanded shop in Spy Hill continued to turn out Lorch snowplanes. A tinsmith at Gerald manufactured the fuel tanks. Many experiments were conducted to develop a propeller that was just right for the snowplane. At length, Karl made them himself, developing a process that involved soaking the wood, shaping it and adding protective brass to the outer edges. The skis were also refined over the years. The most sophisticated were made of oak and shaped in a process similar to that used for the propellers.

The Lorch snowplane was very popular with rural doctors who needed a reliable way of getting to their patients in winter. They were also in demand with other public health professionals and the government of Manitoba was Karl's best customer.

Bill Barry
Bill Barry, Saskatchewan place name expert

Eventually, though, the advent of all weather roads and better snow removal equipment spelled doom for the snowplane. Karl Lorch built about 500 of them over the years, but they passed into history in 1963. A remarkable story just the same - an innovative Saskatchewanian who met a problem head on - and solved it!

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