Miniature Horse-Drawn Bobsleds and Lumber Wagons

Hand-crafted horse-drawn bobsled and lumber wagon models recapture the past

| December 2000

When 77-year-old Gilbert Saffert was in his teens, he would step outside during the Christmas season and in the farm quiet near Sanborn, Minn., he would hear the distant tinkle of singing. "Then all of a sudden, a team of horses pulling a sleigh with a whole bunch of kids on it went past, and you could hear the kids singing," he recalls. 

Partly to recreate those memories and the history surrounding the sleighs (actually bobsleds), partly to work in blacksmithing which he loves, and partly to see if he could do it, Gilbert has taught himself to build miniatures.

In his retirement years, he's made bobsleds, lumber wagons, hayracks, a John Deere gang plow, and a cannon that actually works, as well as many other items out of wood.

Gilbert made his first miniature – a 1/3-scale lumber wagon – during the last years of his 42-year stint as a farmer. "I always did like blacksmithing, and making these replicas involves making the wheels, which is the most fun of all for me," he says. "One of my uncles was a blacksmith, and when I was a kid at home, my folks would go to visit them, and a lot of times when we came there, he had gone back down to the blacksmith shop to work on wheels. He did that work in evenings when he was less likely to be disturbed by other people, because of the nature of the work. When you put a rim on a wheel, you have to get the same rim back on the wheel that you've taken it off. They made a big fire out in back of the blacksmith shop, marked all the rims, and the wheels, and threw all those rims in the fire. But they kept them in order, and they kept the wheels in order. When the rims were good and hot, they expanded, so they were taken out and slipped over the correct wheel.

"Then they were dropped into water so the metal rim shrunk down real tight on the wheel. I took a great interest in that, and one time I just decided I was going to do some work like that."

About 15 years ago, he found a pair of little wagon wheels in bad shape, about the size for the wagons he had been planning to make. "I fooled around with them until I got them fixed real good," he says. And his interest in creating replicas was born.