April 2002

From the Archive: A Tread Ahead

The gripping story of a Big Moose invention that made the rounds

When Earl Covey slipped and nearly fell one winter evening in 1928 in Big Moose, a curious thing happened: Instead of knocking him down, the misstep knocked loose an idea for an invention that as far as anyone knows was the first of its kind.

According to The Earl Covey Story by his second wife, Frances Alden Covey, the well-known builder and innkeeper had been working around Covewood Lodge, his modest compound of log buildings. On a hill near Covewood, Covey and two of his men found themselves pushing his Ford each time its hard rubber wheels failed to grip the packed snow. He remembered telling his workers, “Boys, there must be some way that a tire could be made that would give traction and save all this trouble.”

Then one day, while repairing a chain in his shop, Covey accidentally stepped on a hot bolt and melted a hole in the sole of his crepe rubber boot. After changing into boots with regular rubber soles, Covey had his epiphanal slip and realized that crepe—a supple rubber pressed into crinkled sheets—would work well on a car tire.

As fortune would have it, one of Covey’s regular guests at Covewood was J. E. Hale, a product development manager at Firestone Tire and Rubber. Covey spoke with Hale and an informal partnership was born. The men corresponded between Big Moose and Akron, Ohio, and Firestone’s engineers turned out the first crepe-rubber automobile tires. The following winter, Covey outfitted his station wagon with the prototypes. They worked so well that he traveled to Akron to report directly to Firestone’s development team.

In December 1929 the first factory-made pair of “Polar Grip” tires arrived in Big Moose. “That was an exciting winter,” wrote Frances Alden Covey; within a short time nearly forty cars in the Big Moose-Old Forge area were outfitted. In the January 9, 1930, Adirondack Arrow, an Old Forge weekly, the editor wrote that after giving “an exhibition for slow speed”—a snowy trip from Raquette Lake to Inlet had taken him four hours—he arrived “sadder and wiser,” and announced his purchase of a set of Polar Grips.

Covey soon sought Canadian and U.S. patents; the former eventually came through in about two years, the latter in four and a half. And despite Firestone’s initial enthusiasm, company engineers were skeptical about the crepe’s ability to hold up on dry pavement. (“The tire,” explained Frances Alden Covey, “though it bore the Firestone name, was made only as a special order for Earl and did not have the Company’s unqualified endorsement.”) Covey knew of this defect and had made reference to a strengthening agent in his patent application. But this hurdle caused Covey to realize he had neither the money nor the time to further develop the Polar Grip on his own.

Still he persevered, traveling to Canada to meet a potential manufacturer, and to New York City to demonstrate the tires on the ice at Madison Square Garden. But by the mid-1930s the Depression took hold, and in 1938 Covey began spending winters in Florida, where crepe rubber was more common on espadrilles than automobiles. It is the distinctive log buildings he built around Big Moose—and not the first-ever winter tire—for which Earl Covey is best known.

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