Hand-crafted horse-drawn bobsled and lumber wagon models recapture the past
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.
When Gilbert retired and moved with his wife to their present home in Long Prairie, Minn., he decided to make one of those lumber wagons for each of his five children. "When I was a child, I picked corn on those lumber wagons," he says. "I picked thousands of bushels of corn by hand. We used the lumber wagon because you could make it high enough so you could get 50 bushels of corn in it."
He says when he was about 16, he could hardly wait for corn picking season to start. "We had to finish our own corn at home first, of course," he recalls. "But then you would work out to make some money. The most you probably got was 75 cents a day when I started in 1939, but picking corn by hand I got paid anywhere from three to five cents a bushel, and I could pick 100 bushels by hand in a day, so you could make as much or more again picking corn as scooping gravel, or pitching manure, which was hard work, too."
With all these memories rolling around Gilbert's head, he started making 1/3 scale lumber wagons. "I wanted to make something out of both wood and iron, plus there aren't any of those old wagons around anymore, so I wanted to build a replica of it."
He starts out by forging his own metal. "There's a lot of flat iron on those wagons, but I can't buy the size that would work on these 1/3 scale wagons," he says, "so I start out with round iron. I have my own coal forge, so I pound out all the iron to size." He also makes and threads his own screws for the wagons.
Gilbert buys the iron and the wood, but he makes every part of the wagons by hand. "I primarily use red oak, but some elm, and I did make some of the wagons out of maple, too."
He makes the hub of the wheel out of red oak, the spokes are white oak, and the felloe (the outside wooden rim into which the spokes fit) out of ash or white oak. "Both ash and white oak are known for real good bending, and the felloe has to be bent around the wheels. You have to find a piece that has a good, straight grain. Hickory would be another good wood to use for that."
Red elm would work too, he says, but it's a difficult wood to find. He uses a wood lathe to form the wood, and then sets everything together. He scales the parts down from measurements of real lumber wagons, but he doesn't use any plans.
Gilbert says sleighs are easier to make than lumber wagons.
"The bobsleds have the same kind of box on them as the lumber wagons, but have runners instead," he says. The runners on the original, better-made, real bobsleds were bent. "Some of them used a couple of pieces of wood laid on top of each other, and then the curve was sawed out, if there was enough lumber to do that."
Bobsleds were very practical for farmers of those times.
"Roads in those days weren't like the roads of today," Gilbert recalls. "Usually after the first big snowstorm, all the roads were blocked, and there wasn't any equipment to clean those roads, so the roads stayed blocked until spring." So bobsleds were used to get from place to place.
"My dad and two other neighbors always got together and went to town to get coal, kerosene, groceries, like flour and stuff, and would always change off," he says. "My uncle who lived across the road would go once, and pa would ride along with him and get the stuff. Another neighbor, Harold Belter, would ride along, and then next time he would go, and the others would ride with him."
If someone had too much stuff to get, they went with their own team and sled. "I can remember when the snow was so deep during the winter of 1935-36, and for 42 days the temperature never got above zero. My dad had a real good team, and they had to go to town. When they came back, the horses had big red icicles hanging on their noses. They had breathed in that very cold air, which had ruptured blood vessels in their lungs. That doesn't actually hurt the horses, though. But the team was just absolutely all in."
The sleighs were also used for fun. Often one area neighbor would know what was going on, where a group of kids would be heading. Or else the kids would walk from farm to farm to find out, or take a horse, or in the summer, use a bicycle if they had one, which most didn't.
"In the winter we would throw a bunch of hay in the bottom of the bobsled, and take the team and sled and pick up a bunch of kids and go someplace to play checkers. That was a big thing in those days. Everybody would make homemade ice cream, too. I learned once the hard way not to eat anything just before you went home, because you half froze to death before you got home."
Riders stayed warm under the horse blankets. "You had these blankets for the horses, so when you drove the horses long ways they would get all sweated up, and you needed to cover them up. So while you did your business, you covered them with these blankets. We would use those blankets to cover up in the sled on the way home." Gilbert's father and his-blacksmith uncle made that bobsled, which they used for years.
Gilbert has also started making some 1/3 scale hayracks, "or as some called it, the bundle wagon, which was used to haul grain bundles or grain shocks to the threshing machine, or to haul loose hay to the barn."
He's also been making some 1/12 scale replicas, and although he buys the horses to pull his 1/12 scale replicas, he makes everything else, including the harnesses for the horses. "I still have my original set of harnesses I had when I farmed," Gilbert says. "When I started farming in the fall of 1947, we planted corn with horses, cut our hay with horses, and even cultivated the corn with them. We used the horses a lot." He painstakingly cuts out the reins from a leather motorcycle jacket. "For the size of those reins, it sure takes a long time," he says.
His 1/12 scale hayrack commemorates threshing and hauling hay in the old days. "If you notice," he says, "there's a little feedbox in the back of the hayrack. During threshing, lots of kids got kicked by horses as they were putting strange horses into the barn to feed them. So pop put this feedbox on back of our hayrack so you just loaded your oats in there, and threw down some hay, and fed the horses right there."
The hayrack was also used to haul loose hay. "You put a sling in the hayrack, covered it with loose hay, and used a carrier to pull it up into the barn, where a rope would trip it, and the hay would fall loose from that sling. Then you'd have to get into the barn and spread the hay apart."
Gilbert has also made a 1/12 scale horse-drawn John Deere gang plow. "It seemed like John Deere was the choice of almost everybody down in that area. There was a change of soil when you went from the higher ground to the lower ground, and sometimes when you got down in that low ground, the plow wouldn't scour – it wouldn't slip off the plow – except if you had a John Deere plow. That's what my dad told me. He had John Deere plows, and I guess that's why I stayed with them, too."
The most difficult part of making the 1/12 scale plow was bending the beams to which the plow is attached, Gilbert says. "I found a piece of key-stock which was exactly the size I wanted, but keystock is real hard steel, and I had an awful time bending it. But I stayed with it because I didn't have to forge it down or anything because it was the right size."
The hubs of the wheels on the plow are made of copper tubing. "I took a piece of copper tubing and filled it up with solder. Then I drilled holes for the spokes, which are made of copper wire." The felloe he made of a strip cut off a piece of copper pipe. "I tried to solder those spokes in one at a time, but after I soldered so long, the wheel got so hot it just fell apart. I had to make a jig (or a frame) to hold everything together while I was soldering, and that worked real well."
Each plowshare and moldboard are one piece, crafted from a piece of light sheet metal, "something I could bend to shape it the way it is now on the plow."
He made the eveners to which the horses are attached, and installed six horses on the plow. "A lot of people kind of wonder why I put six horses on there, but where I was born and raised, the soil was real heavy, and a lot of people hitched five horses on a two-bottom plow – three in back and two in front – and a lot of guys used six horses, three and three, because it was said that that extra horse made a lot of difference by three o'clock in the afternoon. The team was still alive on account of that extra horse, and you could keep plowing."
Gilbert has put his 1/12 scale plow and hayrack, along with the horses, on long pieces of wood so all the pieces stay together easier. "Otherwise it takes a long time to hitch them all together," he says.
One of Gilbert's favorite toys is his miniature cannon. "I really like that," he says. "I made everything except the barrel, because I don't have a steel turning lathe. Another guy wanted to make a cannon, too, so he said if I make two wheels for him, he would make me a barrel on his turning lathe." Gilbert takes the cannon to farm shows and farm fests, puts wadding in (no balls), and fires it.
"It makes a lot of noise and smoke, and really draws a lot of people around to see it," he chuckles.
He hopes his hobby will continue into the future.
"I have all the dimensions for the replicas I've made written down, hoping that sometime my boy will take an interest, and then he can just follow the measurements.
"Making those replicas is really interesting," he says. "I really enjoy working with them. This winter I'm going to make a buckboard – a 1/3 scale, one-seat buckboard. It's not only for memories of the past, but I just want to see if I can do it." FC
Bill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.