Frequent Flyers

Sled collection a reminder of winters on the farm

GailKruse.jpg

Left: Antique sled collector Gail Kruse recalls ample opportunity for sledding as a boy. “When I was a child, the winters were a lot tougher than they are now,” he remembers. “The snow drifts were very high; we’d tunnel through to the barn. And there were times when they wouldn’t open up the back roads for days. We had an old WC Allis with steel wheels in back. There were times when the front end of the tractor, with the motor, would ride on the crust of the snow.”

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If all collections are rooted in fond memory, it's a wonder there aren't more sled collections, for what brings a smile to an aging baby boomer's face more quickly than recollections of youthful sledding adventures?

Gail Kruse Jr., New London, Wis., first recaptured boyhood memories at an auction three years ago. He bought two sleds for a total of $15, and he was hooked. "I just got the bug," he says. "I have 75 now, and I'm not finished yet." Gail has all the symptoms of a serious case. "I have sleds hanging in my garage, on the walls and ceiling," he says. "I've traveled as far as 300 miles, one way, for a sled. I keep a paper in my wallet listing the ones I have. One time I went to a flea market (at Baraboo, Wis.) and bought 10 sleds there."

There aren't a lot of resources for the collectors of antique toy sleds. Nor are there large numbers of fellow collectors to consult. Nonetheless, Gail quickly discovered the category is marked by variety. "I never realized there were so many different types of sleds," he says. "Some are made with metal parts, some have iron steering… Some have metal steering with bicycle grips on the ends. They used pine and some oak; a lot of hardwood."

Gail focuses on pieces from the 1940s through the 1960s. Sleds in his collection include traditional wood sleds with metal runners, but also bobsleds, saucers, and models designed to hold toddlers in an upright seat. He has a Snow Wing, a sled made of red sheet metal and shaped like a wing. He's even seen (but not been able to add to his collection yet) a sled with 2-inch springs - shock absorbers! - on the side rails.

"What I look for is different designs," he says. "I have some with no names, but they may have great graphics." One in that category occupies a space of honor in the living room of his home. "It has cast iron runners and just a board on it with a beautiful angel painted on it. It goes way back."

Among his favorites: a 5-foot bobsled made of metal and soft pine. "It looks just like new," he says. It also has nice original paint, another feature Gail looks for. Despite the fact that most sleds were "rode hard and put away wet," a surprising number survive in very good condition. "You can't believe the shape some of these are in, for their age," he notes.

The names are classics themselves. "As a child, I never realized the different number of sleds," Gail says. "I have a Comet, with a rocket-like nose on the front, and steering made of wrought iron. And a King of the Hill. The runners on that one are rusty, but I don't care: The name is clear on the wood." Others in his collection include Silver Streakers, American Clipper, Yankee, Eskimo, Jet, Lightning Guider, Royal Pacer, Shooting Star, Silver Streak, Snow Sport, Torpedo, Snow Sailer, Snow Flake Paris, Speedy, Speed Away, Trailbreaker, Rocket Plane, Olympian, Model Plane and Coast King.

Although sleds occasionally turn up at auctions, Gail finds most of his sleds at antique malls in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. "People at antique malls have never heard of people collecting sleds," he says. Perhaps because of the relatively low demand, they're still affordable, ranging from $7 to $130, Gail says. "If I find a different name, I will buy it," he says. "There's no end to it."

When Gail was a boy, most sleds were sold through hardware stores. "Gambles made Hiawatha sleds," he says. "I have one of those, and also sleds from Ace Hardware, Our Own Hardware, Montgomery-Ward and Coast to Coast." Flexible Flyer held a large market share; Gail suspects that company also manufactured sleds for other companies. His collection includes a 100th anniversary Flexible Flyer: Just 920 of that commemorative were made.

Sleds historically were offered in two styles: clippers and cutters. More than a century ago, when gender distinctions were more deliberate, clippers were designed for use by boys who hurled themselves aboard in grand belly flops. The long, low-slung clipper's deck was mounted directly onto low runners of wood or metal that ended in a point. Cutters, on the other hand, were designed for girls who rode sitting upright. They were also marked by elegant painting and rounded runners that curled up in front.

Source: Bob Brooke, A Short History of Sleds and Sledding in America

All are a far cry from today's toys: "Mostly tubes and saucers," Gail says. "Sleds with steel runners are barely even available now." He doesn't see much sledding anymore, but recalls another era, when it was a popular winter activity. One of 10 children raised on a Wisconsin farm, Gail was a frequent flyer over snow-covered hills. "I was raised as a country boy. We did a lot of sledding," he says. "All the neighbor kids in a 5-mile radius would get together to sled, even at night. We built bonfires to keep warm, but a good many times you'd just about freeze your fingers and toes."

A few youths used toboggans, but most rode the easier-to-handle sleds. The names of those sleds elude him today. "It's sad," he says. "When you get older, that's when those things mean more to you." Sled speed seemed unaffected by modifications, Gail notes: The key was the trail, preferably one with ice just under a layer of snow. "The neatest trail of my life was probably a quarter of a mile long," he recalls. "It wound through the woods, on a lane the tractor had used, and sloped down to a creek."

Occasionally, someone rigged up a rope tow (powered by a gas engine) at the top of a hill. "They'd tow you back up the hill," Gail says. "A lot of towns had that. It was just good to be with friends, to be outdoors. It wasn't really terribly cold all the time … it was the enjoyment of the air, being out in nature, the sounds of the wind and the bonfire. I wouldn't trade those days for anything."

For more information: Gail Kruse Jr., 2013 Southland Lane, New London, Wis., 54961; 920-982-755.

Resources:

Flexible Flyer and other Great Sleds for Collectors, by Joan Palicia; published 1997 by Schiffer Publishing Co., Atglen, Pa.

Websites:

www.freepages.rootsweb.com/˜jonkh Collector's site with extensive photographs of his and other collectors' sleds, information on sled restoration, care, history, links and a detailed explanation of Flexible Flyer dating.

www.sledworks.com For more than 80 years, Standard Novelty Works built Lightning Guider sleds in a factory in Duncannon, Pa. The business is now closed, but a museum celebrating the history of sleds is housed in part of Standard Novelty's Old Sled Works. Mini-museum tour, information and links.

www.infoblvd.net/sledman/home/home.htm Collector/restorer's site with images of very handsomely restored sleds dating to the 1890s.

www.geocities.com/the_sled_place/ Collector's site with photographs and forum.