Dashing Through the Snow

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In his career as an accounting professor, Bill Engel dealt with absolutes. In retirement, though, his focus has taken on a touch of whimsy. Today, Bill collects antique horse-drawn sleighs - but it's more than a collection to the rural Missouri man. 'I'm not just a collector,' he says. 'I'd like to be known for saving these sleighs. They were a part of somebody else's family as much as a pet dog. I want to give them a safe haven; to be someone who keeps track of them, takes care of them. Maybe someday I'll even have a museum.'

Some would say he's well on his way toward achieving that goal. He currently houses about 70 sleighs in four buildings and at his home under the banner of Denver Sleigh Works. As with all collections, this one started innocently enough.

'I had seen people cut old sleighs in half to make coffee tables out of them,' Bill recalls. 'And I thought 'that's awful' So I started buying the old sleighs, just to try to save them. Next thing you know, people started calling me about sleighs, telling me of auctions where sleighs were going to be sold. I even had a sleigh willed to me by a lady in Virginia who saw an article about what we were doing.'

Bill's not the only one. 'The interest in sleighs -and the demand - has really jumped,' he says. As his collection swells, Bill and his wife, Linda, keep the focus on preservation. Bill enjoys doing a bit of restoration work, but a 'better-than-new' look is not his goal. 'Most sleighs were very dull,' he says. 'There wasn't much color to them at all.'

They were, however, offered in a dazzling variety of models and styles. Bill's collection includes everything from lightweight cutters designed for speed, to the workhorse farm sleigh used to haul heavy loads.

Cutters, typically with just one seat, were generally considered 'city' sleighs, Bill says. 'They were more plush, and very light, often made of cottonwood.' Swell-body sleighs, those with deep curves, were crafted from just one piece of wood, often beech. 'They're the most fragile,' Bill says, 'which also means they deteriorate quickly.' Russian-Canadian-style sleighs ('Like the ones in the movie Dr. Zhivago,') were sturdy but elegant. Another of Bill's sleighs features an offset singletree that allows the horse to use one track in a road, keeping the animal out of deep snow between the tracks, while the sleigh runners follow tracks already cut in the snow.

Farm sleighs, on the other hand, tended to be heavily constructed (often of oak) with more consideration given to practicality than to luxury or speed. Bobsleighs, for instance, had two sets of runners, one behind the other. 'You'd put a high-wheel wagon box on the runners,' Bill says, 'and because there was a pivot, it turned better than a traditional sleigh.' Farm sleighs also tended to be more stable than those designed for passenger use. Many cutters and passenger sleighs had a high center of gravity, and spills were commonplace.

Sleighs hold a prominent role in transportation history. 'Sleighs predate wheels,' Bill says. 'They were even used in constructing the pyramids.' Bill estimates about 5,000 sleigh manufacturers operated in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. By 1910, however, the advance of technology brought the era of sleighs as important transporters to an end (although sleighs were commonly used in parts of Canada into the 1940s). 'With the advent of the car and growth of cities, sleighs were on the way out,' Bill says. 'You had to have a horse to have a sleigh, and all those people in the cities didn't have horses.'

More's the pity. By all accounts, sleigh rides still rank in a class of their own.

'You have a real sensation of going fast when you're really not,' Bill says. 'And you have the snow and spray flying back in your face. It's very peaceful; in fact, that's why they used sleigh bells. It's so quiet that you can't tell if anybody's coming. Often you have no sense of where the road is. Deep snow can drift over fences and everything. It's a smoother ride than a wagon, but if you run into a little ice, it's as bumpy as the devil.'

Bill's collection is slowly expanding beyond sleighs. 'I'm buying a lot of stuff one Bay,' he says. 'I've got a couple of old horse blankets (buffalo robes were used in the west)... an old beaver coat from Winnipeg, and tools and equipment used in trapping and ice harvesting.' And bells, of course: both those worn by the horse, and those attached to the shaves.

'In fact, the expression 'I'll be there with bells on' comes from sleighs,' Bill notes. 'If you got stuck while out in your sleigh, and somebody had to bail you out, you typically expressed your gratitude by giving him your sleigh bells. So if you say 'I'll be there with bells on,' it means that you don't anticipate any trouble getting there.'

'We're also looking for old stories of sleighs,' he says. 'These aren't any good without the stories.' He recalls one, and tells it with relish:

There was this married couple riding in sleigh. The wife observed how perfectly the team was working in tandem. 'Wouldn't it be nice,' she says, 'if a married couple operated that way, and got along so well?' 'Yes,' her husband agreed, 'but the horses have only one tongue between them.'

Sleigh's time-tested appeal remains strong today

Few modes of transportation can match the festive and nostalgic qualities of the horse-drawn sleigh, and fewer still can top its historic significance. Sleighs and sleds, after all, are among the very earliest vehicles. People, dogs, reindeer, horses and other animals pulled primitive versions. By contrast, richly ornate versions carried royalty through the European countryside as early as the 18th century.

The concept of trading wheels for runners bred a huge variety of sleighs. Different styles were adapted to different terrain and different applications. In America, for instance, sleighs were used in logging and mining. The conversion was sometimes as simple as installing runners on a wagon's wheel hubs.

America's colonization led to further evolution of the ancient vehicle. The massive sleighs of Europe were not always a good match for the colonies, where roads were nonexistent and where the land was wild and ever changing.

As sleighs developed to meet early settlers' needs, they even changed cultural patterns. When a thick blanket of snow covered the land, sleighs actually improved transportation. Suddenly, rural residents could slice across fields: Roads and paths were unnecessary with a trusty sleigh.

Because they were used exclusively in winter when farmers were less busy, sleighs became closely associated with festive social gatherings, sport outings and holiday events. Itinerant painters were often commissioned to embellish sleighs with bright accents, detailed scenes and even the occasional promotional message. Some manufacturers, however, ensured that their sleighs needed no further decoration. From an 1883 advertisement for a Kimball cutter:

For the body color we would recommend dark blue, with a half-inch black stripe around the outer edge of the body, and a fine line of canary yellow 3/8 in. from the black stripe. The running-part can be painted either canary yellow or bright carmine. In the former case, the running-part may be striped black; and in the latter case, gold striping may be put on the running part, and on the body a fine gold line in place of the canary yellow. Trimming, blue plush for back, cushion and fall. Carpet, blue, with small figures to match the color of the running-part. Plumes, blue. Mountings, brass.

Wire 'fenders' - which protected the sleigh and its passengers from branches and brush - and decorative feather plumes, installed at the sleigh's front corners, were said to 'greatly increase the attractiveness of the sleigh.'

Today, sleigh rides remain a popular recreational activity in parts of the country with abundant snowfall and open land. Completely restored sleighs are available from craftsmen, and a handful of manufacturers produce new models using state-of-the-art technology. The appeal of riding in a 'one-horse open sleigh' is clearly timeless.

For more sleigh information

Horse Drawn sleighs, compiled by Susan Green, 2003(second Edition), 263 pages, $29.95 plus $4.50 shipping. The Astragal Press, P.O. Box 239, Mendham, NJ 07945-0239;(866) 543-3045(toll free); Fax (973) 543-3044: or on the Web at www.astragalpress.com

For historic reference materials about sleighs and sleigh manufactures, contact the Carriage Museum of America, P.O. Box 417, Bird-in-Hand, PA 17505;(717) 656-7019; www.carriagemuseumlibrary.org

For information about sleigh enthusiasts and sleigh rallies, explore the carriage-driving webzine at www.carriagedriving.net

- For more information about Denver Sleigh Works or sleighs, write Bill Engel at P.O. Box 4, Denver, MO 64441; or visit his Web site at www.sleighworks.com; or by e-mail: hesper43@ccp. com