Frequent Flyers

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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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Above: Detail from the 100th anniversary edition Flexible Flyer, released in 1989.
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Below: Detail of the single-ski Bob Ski, made by Steel Master.
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Below: The Rocket Plane sled.
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Above: The Bob Ski. “It has a wooden ski underneath the sled,” Gail says. “And in the back, a little rotor helped steer. It’s beautiful. You wouldn’t believe the condition it’s in: it’s like new.”
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Left: The ceiling of Gail Kruse’s garage (shown here) is covered with sleds, as is the interior of another shed on his property. Early on, Gail did a bit of restoration work on his sleds. “I used to paint some of the runners,” he says. “But now I don’t touch them. I store them inside, so they’re protected, and they’re more valuable unrestored.”
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Above: The Bob Link bobsled, used primarily as a racing sled, featured wooden skis.
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Left: The split-rail sled made by Sherwood Bros. Manufacturing had a unique steering linkage. Instead of a steel runner leading all the way to the back of the sled, the Sherwood has one solid runner that curves and stops; another runner, at the back, is for navigating.
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Below: Original paint on the Flite Way sled, made in Horicon, Wis., in the late 1950s. This sled has handles for steering, and a rod bent on each side to turn the metal skis.
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Above: A familiar name: The Airline Jr. was made by Allen & Co., Philadelphia, Pa., manufacturers of Planet Jr. garden tools and tractors.

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.

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