Dashing Through the Snow

| December 2003

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.