Last fall, I was cleaning out the ranch bone yard. One of the pieces that caught my eye was an old bobsled. The decking was completely rotten and caved in, but the running gear looked surprisingly solid. I remember riding on it when I was a child, and have pictures of my grandfather taking the California cousins out for a snowy ride.
We used it to feed cattle into the 1960s, when we finally retired the draft horses. The bobsled had been sitting there, rotting away, for better than 50 years.
I towed it down to the house and went to work on it. The decking was pretty basic carpentry. This was probably one of several farm-built replacements it had seen over many years. I bought rough-cut lumber from a local mill and put it back together. A couple of pieces on the running gear needed to be replaced. That carpentry was a little more involved, and I learned a lot about how the bobsled worked by taking it apart and putting it back together. There’s not much more than gravity holding it all together. It will never be work-ready again, but I don’t have a team to pull it with anyway.
Barn Offers Shelter for Restored Relic
When it was all done, the next question after why? was where? The bobsled was too big to leave in the front yard. I’d moved it from the barnyard because it was in the way. I finally decided to stash it in an old barn that we used to store hay in.
I towed it to the barn with a Farmall M that has been on the property since 1943 and remains part of the working fleet. Over the roar of the M, I’m pretty sure I heard the old barn and the bobsled greeting each other, old friends that had been apart for years.
I don’t know how old the bobsled is. It was here when we bought the place, and was old and worn out then. Identical running gear is available new today from wagon makers and shows up in 150-year-old photos. It’s a safe bet that the bobsled has made several thousand trips through the barn, picking up loads of hay twice a day to feed cows.
If the bobsled never moves again, and it might not, there is no better place for it than in the barn where it earned its keep over so many years.
The Challenge of Living at Altitude
Just by chance, I stumbled onto a couple of personal histories left by the people who homesteaded parts of the ranch back in the 1890s. One described using a similar bobsled to go to school. His job, before breakfast, was to build a fire in a potbelly stove they had bolted to the sled. They had a little warmth for the hour-long trip to school.
My sled probably has thousands of miles on it, hauling hay to the cows and milk cans to the milk depot, but it never left the ranch. Another homesteader described an aspect of travel by sled that I had never thought of. In about 1890, he was travelling long distances by bobsled. It was March, which at our altitude is still very much winter. He ran out of hay, and needed to get 20 miles down the valley where another farmer had some for sale. He left home in deep snow on a sled like mine, maybe even the same one, for all I know. About 10 miles into the trip, he had dropped nearly 1,000 feet of elevation, and spring had sprung. He ran out of snow and hit bare ground. The bobsled was worthless.
He unhitched the team and kept going. Within a few miles, he found a farmer who lent a wagon. He hitched up to the borrowed wagon and took that the rest of the way, and bought his hay. Then he took the loaded wagon back up to the bobsled, abandoned at the edge of the snow. The loose hay had to be transferred over with a pitchfork, and then the wagon returned a couple of miles down the valley. Then back up to the loaded bobsled to drag it all home. It’s about 40 miles, without all the backtracking, and took him nearly 24 hours. The horses did most of the driving on the way home after he fell asleep on the hay.
Queries Run Into Dead Ends
In mountainous country, the problem of running into different climate conditions over short distances had to happen all the time, whether you were traveling in a bobsled or a cutter sleigh. There had to be a solution other than hoping you would run into somebody who would let you borrow their equipment for what could be a couple of days.
I’ve seen ski attachments that bolt on to a wagon axle to replace the wheels. That would require jacking up the wagon, removing the wheels, and attaching the skis. Both the wheels and skis looked heavy enough to require a couple of men to handle, and bulky enough to eliminate any practical load in the wagon. That had to be a seasonal adjustment, not something you did on the way to town to take the kids to school.
Three wagon makers I called said it was an interesting question, but offered no answers. I called the director of a museum in Cedar City, Utah. They have a beautiful collection of horse-drawn equipment. He sheepishly admitted that, despite spending most of his life working with this stuff, the question had never even occurred to him. He never drives a bobsled off the museum grounds because the roads are plowed. The wagons run on paved roads in the local parades.
For many years, the road through our ranch was a main thoroughfare, despite having to cross a 10,000-foot pass. At the summit, the snow can be deep enough to stop a wagon on the 4th of July, while the roads up and down the pass would be dry and dusty. I keep thinking there must have been some kind of ski that would fasten directly to the wagon wheel to solve the problem, but nobody I’ve talked to has ever seen anything like that.
So the mystery remains: How did you travel when you ran in and out of snow? Does anybody out there know how they solved this one? FC
Tom Clyde lives on a ranch near Woodland, Utah. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.