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Sleighs of yesteryear

January 7, 2019
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This winter scene from the Wisconsin Historical Society shows a couple in a horse-drawn sleigh on a residential street in 1913.

EDGERTON — Although its heyday was more than a century ago, the sleigh remains a marvel: With its elegant curves, handcrafted details and a delicate sense of balance engineered to skim over snow, the sleigh was as much about form as about function.

Or so says Dan Bussey, who has collected warehouses of the horse-drawn beauties.

“They were all about style at that time,” he said as he recently showed off some of the sleighs he has stored in an Edgerton building and plans to restore. For owners who made sure their sleighs had a certain look or adornment, he said, “It was all about being seen.”

The 150 sleighs in Bussey’s collection (he has also amassed a range of horse-drawn vehicles such as carriages, surreys, commercial wagons and even elaborate hearses) represent a range of countries and levels of wealth.

Some are simple, others flush with velvet upholstery, hand-painted ornamentation and lavish ironwork. A few have very specific functions, such as a German sled used in World War I to transport wounded soldiers from the battlefield, or a boxy sleigh with a roof and small wood stove that was used to deliver mail. Another would be used by a farmer to deliver his goods to town.

Bussey’s most precious finds, however, are those linked to local history, he said.

“When I collect, I like to collect local pieces as much as possible, and to know about the vehicle: Where did it come from? How was it used? It’s really fun to hang on to this history,” he said.

“The infrastructure of this country was built by horse and wagon. Every town would have had their streets laid out by horse and wagon.”

Yet old wagons can be difficult to find; they were used hard, and often parked in the elements, where they would disintegrate over time. Sleighs, on the other hand, would be stored when not in use, often in the rafters of a protected barn, helping many of them survive.

There were some 3,000 wagon and carriage makers in Wisconsin between 1865 and the 1920s, said Bussey, who has compiled a listing of the firms. More than two dozen were located in Madison. Edgerton had five. Once the automobile took over, however, wagons, carriages — and their wintertime counterpart, the sleigh — became obsolete.

Sleigh rides

Rocking L Acres in the Town of Dunn is one of the handful of locations left in Wisconsin where sleigh rides are part of the winter landscape. The horse farm offers rides through the woods in its seven-seat wagonette-style sleigh (and in horse-drawn wagons when there is no snow).

Passengers can stay indoors until it’s time to get tucked under the warm, authentic blankets that are provided for a sleigh ride, said Wes Licht, who owns Rocking L Acres with his wife Jane. Licht himself built the body of the sleigh and placed it on bob sleigh runners that date back to the early 1900s.

Rides (which cost a $50 hitching fee, plus $10 per adult and $5 per child) book up quickly, often with family groups, Licht said. Prime sleigh conditions? A base of 4 to 5 inches of snow, he said.

Part of Wisconsin life

In late 19th-century Wisconsin, however, sleigh rides were not about nostalgia and fun. They were an essential part of winter life.

“It was like having a car today. It was your primary transportation,” said Jim Willaert, curator of interpretation and collections at the Wade House state historic site in Greenbush.

To get anywhere in winter when roads were not passable by wagon, “you could walk, ride a horse or use a sleigh.”

The Wesley W. Jung Carriage Museum at the Wade House has the state’s largest collection of carriages, wagons and sleighs, housed in a 20,000 square foot museum. The restored horse-drawn vehicles date from 1870 to 1915 and include children’s sleds, delivery sleighs and even a 10-passenger Russian sleigh.

Sleighs did not go particularly fast, in deference to the horses pulling them — and the dangers that snow could present to both animals and passengers, Willaert said.

“In horse terms today, (the horse) would be (moving) at a walk or sometimes at a trot.” It was not wise to go too fast, he said, because “the horse and his traction were essentially your brakes.”

Sleighs tended to travel along road beds that, without snow, would be traveled by horse-drawn wagon or carriage, said Bussey, who is on the board of the Carriage Museum of America.

And sleigh bells? They were not meant for musical accompaniment.

Sleigh bells actually served as safety gear, Bussey and Willaert explained. If a sleigh was traveling in the dark, or had to make a sharp turn around a towering snowbank, it was important that other vehicles knew it was coming. The bells made it clear that a sleigh was on its way nearby.

Sleigh in the rafters

Bussey, who also has sleighs stored in Iowa, first got interested in collecting sleighs after helping pull one out of an old Edgerton barn with his parents. The sleigh, made in Michigan, had belonged to his great-grandparents but had been left in the rafters for decades.

Three days after the sleigh was out, the barn collapsed.

“That sleigh led to this craziness,” he said of his collection, which he’s been building for 25 years.

“The earliest vehicle I found probably dates from the 1820s and ’30s,” Bussey said. “Most of these are (from) the end of an era, because those are the ones that were saved.”

He buys his sleighs at sales across the country.

“There’s a big (consignment) sale in Pennsylvania. The Amish bring things; the stuff comes from all over,” he said of a sale last fall where he bought his latest two sleigh acquisitions. “The trick now, of course, is to find something unique or different. That’s the fun of it.”

“My goal has always been to open a museum,” he said. “I started with the sleighs, and delved into a lot of other things. But I’m strictly staying with sleighs at this point in time. They’re what really make me happy. They’re so unique.”

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