Antique sleds provide satisfying sideline for hay tool collector.
Cover from a Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Co. catalog, circa 1890.
Collectors are quick to admit that the hunt is the best part of their hobby. The only thing better? Going off on a tangent. Steve Weeber, Iowa City, knows all about tangents. An avid collector of antique hay tools, he’s built an impressive collection of hay carriers and related equipment. But today he’s chasing antique sleds.
“I got interested in sleds about 12 years ago,” Steve says. “I got connected with a group of ‘wagon and sled people’ through my interest in Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Co., a prominent Harvard, Ill., manufacturer of barn equipment, hay carriers and other farm needs.” While looking through an early company catalog, Steve saw a selection of steel coaster sleds. “I was really after the hay tools,” Steve says, “but I thought it’d be neat to get one of those sleds with a star in the casting” — the same star that adorns the company’s hay carriers, some of which are in Steve’s collection.
Tracing its roots to 1883, Hunt, Helm, Ferris was a relative newcomer in the sled industry. Paris Mfg. Co., South Paris, Maine, the nation’s oldest manufacturer of sleds and toboggans until its closure in 1989, was established in 1861. Company founder Henry Morton started out by building 50 sleds; his wife hand-painted each one in the kitchen of the family’s home. Paris eventually expanded production to keep the factory running year ‘round. Output included go-carts, wagons, wheelbarrows, stepladders, ironing boards, children’s desks, furniture and more.
Paris sleds were known for their elaborate and beautiful embellishments. At one time the company employed 10 artists working almost in an assembly line. “Sleds were put on a sort of turntable that rotated every 30 minutes,” Steve says. “One person painted borders, another painted birds, somebody else did flowers.” Runners also received special attention. The Paris “Snow Fairy” sled featured tiny working bells on its runners.
Other early sled manufacturers included Garton Toy Co., Sheboygan, Wis.; Kalamazoo (Mich.) Sled Co.; Auto Wheel Coaster Co., Tonawanda, N.Y.; and Hibbard Spencer & Bartlett, Chicago.
Not only did sleds help fill out factory production schedules, they were a natural complement to hardware store inventories. “All of the old general hardware stores had a line of stuff for kids,” Steve says.
The sleds Steve collects are designed for the very youngest passengers: children up to age 5. Delicate, ornate and small, the sleds were not intended for serious downhill activity. “These were probably pulled around by mom or dad,” Steve says. “You see pictures of these going down hills but I think they were more commonly pulled.”
Most of those in Steve’s collection date to about 1880-1900. Boys’ sleds — clippers — often had pressed or embossed patterns; paint was then rolled over the surface to highlight the design. One sled Steve bought had so many coats of paint on it that the embossed pattern was totally covered. Boys’ sleds typically featured artwork of horses and animals. Clippers were generally low-slung; riders belly-flopped their way on board.
Girls’ sleds — cutters — were slightly taller, designed to be used in a seated position. Many featured paintings of birds, flowers and pastoral scenes. All came with ropes attached to the front. The most elaborate featured decorative touches in the metal framework, typically swans and dragons, some chromed.
Steve oversees a meticulous restoration program. He spends hours cleaning framework and replacing wood tops with new boards and fresh paint. Original tops are highly collectible as folk art, but Steve holds on to his, putting them in storage. “Most of them are pretty well chewed up,” he says.
Becky Schwarzhoff, who lives in nearby Lone Tree, Iowa, brings the sleds back to life, painting new wood decks to look very much like the original equipment. She starts with a sketch and considers original hues. “I look at the faded original and try to decipher it,” she says. “It’s hard but it’s fun.” She averages 10-12 hours on each sled. Some get three or four coats; each has a different finish — satin, semi-gloss, lacquer. “It just depends on the sled.” FC
For more information: Steve Weeber, 4892 Kansas Ave. SW, Iowa City, IA 52240; (319) 930-2310; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector; contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.