The Art of Sleighing

December 2008
It is January 1894, and a substantial amount of snowfall covers the city of New York. The mad rush of enthusiastic sleigh drivers creates a mess of Sixth and Seventh Avenues before the light rollers can roll the streets.

Central Park, however, resplendent with fresh snow on its gentle slopes, presents itself with good footing. The morning hours become hectic with daredevil horsemen and their fast trotters put to Portland Cutters. Designed for speed, the Portland Cutter has, by this time, become the standard two-passenger sleigh throughout the United States and Canada. These lightweight vehicles, painted in harmonizing colors, have curved dashers, thinly curved one-piece runners and delicate spreaders. As noon arrives, so do the “downtowners” and their nondescript, primitive box-sided tub sleighs, milk and grocery sleighs, and bulging eight seaters called “New-Englanders.” As late afternoon approaches, however, high society flocks to the park in their considerably more stylish turnouts. Colors such as dark green, ultramarine blue or black make up most of the sleigh bodies, many curvaceous and refined. These sleighs are delicately striped with lines of gold or gold-leaf, black, and an even finer line of a lighter version of the body color. Depending on the sleigh design, dashers are either straight and high, with silver wire screens at the top to protect the driver from flying snow and ice, or curved like the necks of swans for the same purpose. Decorative elements such as eagle head mountings in brass or silver, intricately carved body mouldings, and horsehair plumes in colors to complement the vehicle add drama to the entire package. Gentle sleigh bells adorn the high-stepping horses, some driven in pairs, others four-up, while their owners sit snug under fur lap robes of the highest quality, their feet warmed by brass foot warmers loaded with hot coals. Barouche and Victoria styled sleighs, with intricate and delicate truss work, seem to be a favorite choice of the wealthy. Such finery makes the pedestrians and skaters on the lakes that dot the parkscape take notice—more importantly, so do fellow society members parading about in their own sleighs.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, literally hundreds of sleighs could be seen in Central Park on a single winter day during the Victorian era, and people would come from great distances, traveling through harsh conditions, just to witness this magnificent spectacle.

Preserving a Romantic Notion

In spite of the grand picture left to us by newspaper accounts and Currier & Ives prints, sleighing, as a means of transportation, was not a lighthearted endeavor. If the proper precautions weren’t taken, people and horses could lose their lives under the severe conditions winter dropped on the pre-mechanized world. Horses needed specific shoeing to prevent them from slipping on ice and to keep snow from balling up under their feet, which is very dangerous during travel as well as for long-term soundness. Those that traveled by sleigh needed to keep warm, and for long periods of time, to prevent frostbite and hypothermia—hence the popularity of heavy fur coats, heavy wool lap robes and carpets, and the use of footwarmers. Having the right sleigh for the job at hand was equally as important. The fancy, delicate sleighs enjoyed by the wealthy in such cities as New York and Boston would simply break apart in coarse, rural landscapes. Although sleighs, mostly cutters, two seaters, and large bobsleds, continue to be made by modern day manufacturers, those that properly restore original antique sleighs have earned a considerable amount of respect in the contemporary driving community. “Typically,” says Ken Harris, a craftsman from Colchester, Conn., “it takes me about 150 hours to restore a sleigh the size of a swell body Albany Cutter.” This may include body reconstruction, painting, striping and upholstering. “I try to restore my sleighs with historically accurate paint colors and designs,” continues Ken. As with carriage restoration, “it is important to use colors that were prominent to the era of the individual sleigh.” Likewise, he upholsters the sleigh in fabrics such as velvet, mohair, or wool broadcloth. These types of materials were overwhelmingly preferred over leather, because they would help to keep the passengers warm. Another important aspect to sleigh restoration is the use of accurate wood types. “Hickory or ash was most often used for the runners and body; poplar made up most of the panels of the sleigh. Oak is no good; the acid in this type of wood corrodes the metalwork on the sleigh.” Although sleighs in all conditions, original and restored, are relatively easy to find at auctions or through dealers, the impressive, intricate sleighs of the upper class are extremely rare and are coveted by museums and private collectors. “People who have [sleigh] collections have a real love affair with sleighs,” muses Ken. Judging him by his meticulous and artful restoration work, it is safe to say that Ken Harris, too, is smitten by the timeless beauty of sleighs.

Sleighing into the 21st Century

Suzanne Geiger and her husband, Gib, operate a commercial sleigh ride, farm stand, and bed & breakfast business from Mountain Valley Farm in Waitsfield, Vt. As picturesque as the name implies, with terrain just as up and down as it sounds, the sleigh trails must be groomed on a daily basis during the winter season, which for them lasts from November through March. The sleigh ride business offers some uniquely trying conditions for the Geigers and others in the industry. “Lousy trail conditions make us very nervous,” reports Suzanne. “Most group sleighs are built for level sleigh tracks, and they can be heavy and large, to hold a lot of people. It is easy [for the horses] to pull on the level,” she says, but not “up and down long slopes.” Not only do the slopes create a dangerous possibility for tipping over, the Geigers are realizing that, as the years progress, such strenuous work is taking its toll on their aging horses. Now, the Geigers no longer use the heavy bobsleds, but put their horses to the smaller two-seater or antique cutter they own, although cutters, too, present a downside. “For us on the hills and uneven trails, we prefer the bob sleighs rather than the cutters because the bobs can run separate from front to rear, running up and over things and taking their own course to meet the uneven terrain.” Sue adds, “Our small, single-horse cutter is absolutely gorgeous and fun to drive, but only in perfect snow conditions.” Such conditions include the right kind of snow, fluffy and light, as well as the right amount. About six inches is the ideal—much more and it can be drudgery for the horse unless properly rolled, any less and the runners hit bare ground. What lies under the snow, however, can be the most ominous. Any amount of snow over a sheet of ice is a guaranteed wreck. “There is a very good reason why sleigh travel is, for the most part, a thing of the past,” explains Suzanne. “We often get calls from people staying at a hotel over by the ski area, wanting us to pick them up in a sleigh and take them to a restaurant six miles away.” Simply impractical. The lack of direct experience the average person has in the world of the horse and sleigh creates a lack of knowledge of the reality of not only what sleighing is like in modern day terms, but what sleigh travel was really like before the early 1900s. “Sleighing is something that most people see only in the movies. They truly don’t understand what is involved.” On the other hand, Suzanne concludes, “it is so satisfying on those crystal clear days when the snow is glistening and the visitors are so thrilled, getting that once-in-a-lifetime experience. We love that!”

Regional Sleigh Rallies

“This is such a peaceful sport, “ says Alyse Aubin of Sutton, Mass. “The sound of all the sleigh bells jingling when we get together at a sleigh rally is, for me, the most gratifying thing. Even without bells, just the sound the runners make through the snow is so beautiful.” Sleigh rallies, even when well planned, have the dubious disadvantage of being dependent on very specific weather patterns, and many have been known to fall victim to last-minute cancellations. Here is a small list of associations and museums in New England that make an honest attempt to hold sleigh rallies each winter. Visit their websites for information and contact numbers.

The Winter Classic at Orleton Farm, Stockbridge, Mass., sponsored by the Colonial Carriage & Driving Society, www.colonialcarriage.org., Skyline Farm, North Yarmouth, Maine www.skylinefarm.org, Waters Farm, West Sutton, Ma., www.watersfarm.com, Winter Sleigh Driving Series, South Woodstock, Vt., sponsored by the GMHA, www.gmhainc.org.

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