Old-fashioned fun spurs sleigh collector’s hobby
Kansas City, Mo. ? Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh. O’er the fields we go, laughing all the…
Wait, just a second. When was the last time anyone dashed anywhere like this?
“At Christmas we sing ‘Over the River’ and ‘Jingle Bells,’ but most people have never ridden in a sleigh and have no idea what the thrill of it was like,” Bill Engel said.
Would you, for instance, know that those elegant Currier & Ives sleighs with the voluptuously curved seats atop graceful runners are called cutters?
Would you know a Portland cutter if you saw one? Bet you would. Santa drives one of those square-bodied sleighs.
And Engel has several. The former Kansas Citian collects cutters and other horse-drawn sleighs the way others amass salt and pepper shakers and snow globes. His collection of 55 or so antique sleighs takes up the entire lower level of an old grocery store across from the tiny town square in Denver, Mo.
He bought his first sleigh at an auction four years ago — “Mom got a new car, and Dad got a new sleigh,” says daughter Holly Smothers — and just like in that potato chip commercial, he couldn’t stop at just one.
As he searches for these Christmas icons, Engel considers himself a savior of sleighs and their stories.
“Everything today seems to be moving back toward our past, and tradition is what Christmas is all about,” says the 63-year-old grandfather of five. “That’s what we’re trying to preserve.”
Engel runs Denver Sleigh Works near the Missouri-Iowa border, about 2 1/2 hours northwest of Kansas City.
A quiet place
Highways D and M lead to Denver, roller-coastering up and down through farm country. Drivers scoot past one another on the narrow lanes and lift a hand off the steering wheel in that friendly, back-roads salute.
Denver, home to about 50, wears a deserted look. But the town hops when the restaurant, open only Fridays and Saturdays in the old bank building, draws crowds with its prime rib supper.
Denver Sleigh Works stands kitty-corner to the restaurant. In the window Engel has posted a vivid orange sign that urges passers-by to “Think Snow.”
Inside the unheated building, dimly lit by fluorescent lights, sleighs are stacked to the ceiling on a rack along one wall. The ones crowded on the “showroom” floor leave little room to walk.
“You hunt around, you go to auctions,” he said. “You’d be surprised by how many people talk about their grandmother’s sleigh in the barn.”
Standing among his treasures, Engel gushes about how the Egyptians built the pyramids by hauling heavy stones atop rails, forerunner to the sleigh.
Engel’s collection includes not only homely sleighs used to haul things around a farm, but also impressive Russian Canadian sleighs — think Dr. Zhivago — with wood skirts and fancy curlicues decorating the runners.
A short walk down a gravel road from Denver Sleigh Works is Engel’s farm workshop. Here is found his latest prize finds: a sleigh used by a country doctor and a postman’s sleigh.
Engel thinks the 150-pound mail sleigh looks like a Model T on runners. He has painted the sleigh, from northern Ontario, a bright cherry red.
Engel is coy about sharing how much he’s spent on his hobby, but he reveals that the mailman’s sleigh from Canada cost him $350 and that he’s paid far more for others.
Talk about inflation. In 1899 the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog sold two popular sleighs for $9.50 and $14.75 — on sale.