Sleigh Rides

Adapted from a letter
Aunt Katy wrote in 1962.

How strange it is to be in January already and have so little snow. Of course we've had plenty of cold but this is a far cry from the winters of my childhood. Then snow fell in November and stayed on the ground till late March or even into April.

New Years afternoon we went for a ride around town to see the Christmas decorations once more before they come down. The car ride was snug and warm in contrast to the sleigh rides we took years ago.

Flying along behind a fast trotting horse looks picturesque enough but believe me, it can be mighty cold. We wore woolen clothes, knitted scarves, mittens, and hoods, and bundled in bear-skin or buffalo robes. At our feet lay soapstones heated through in the oven or small stoves holding live coals which were nice and toasty but dangerous for fear of fire in case of the sleigh overturning.

Roads weren't plowed clear in those days for a good solid pack of snow was needed for sleighing. Horses were shod with special shoes for better traction. When they trotted, their hooves tossed up clots of snow. Farmers were responsible for keeping rural roads near their property in good condition for sleighing. They removed drifts and pulled logs over the snow to pack it down. That was part of being a good neighbor.

When Ma, Pa, and I planned a trip to the Big Farm in the winter we arose in pitch black early morning. Sleepily, I would dress beside the kitchen range as Ma prepared breakfast. After chores were done, fires banked, and the kitchen put in order, Pa would bring the sleigh with a prancing Dandy in belled harness, to the front door. Ma handed him hot, blanket-wrapped soapstones and a well laden basket of goodies to stow under the seat before we clambered in over the runners. Our sleigh had a "sprung seat" and a fairly high back which protected us somewhat from the cold wind. Even nestled cosily between Ma and Pa, my eyes stung with tears, my cheeks would be cherry-red, and so would my nose before we got to the farm.

The sleigh runners sang as they slid over hard-packed snow. Ma and I kept our hands and arms tucked under the buffalo robe but Pa wore huge, shaggy sheep-skin mittens reaching to his elbows over his coat to protect his hands from frostbite as he drove. If you didn't keep well covered, your fingers would be "touched" which was very painful as my cousin Rachael could attest.

Rachael once had a pair of beautiful new red mittens. Aunt Ange had worked snowflakes in blue wool on their backs and Rachael was understandably proud of them. But pride goeth before a fall as my Grandmother often said. Rachael insisted on leaving her hands outside the robe on a long sleigh ride so she could better admire the mittens. Her fingers were severely frostbitten so she spent several days with them sore and aching.

Sometimes there would be a star or two still gleaming in the early morning sky as we started for the Big Farm. In the hushed stillness the sleigh seemed to fly behind Dandy's high stepping hooves. He was a sprightly fellow and loved a good run even when routed from his snug stall on a cold morning. The jingle of sleigh bells and snap and creak of the harness often put me back to sleep with my face buried against Ma's side.

How bright the sun would be when I wakened. Streaming from under steel-grey clouds to touch the snow covered landscape with diamonds, it turned fenceposts and bushes into fairyland scenery. Now the clarion call of roosters sounded through the frosty air, dogs woofed their greetings as we passed homesteads along the road. There was a bustle apparent in the barns and cowsheds as morning chores were being done.

When we arrived at the Big Farm, Pa would bundle me into Uncle Bert's reaching arms, half numb with cold and long sitting. Grandpa, his silvery head uncovered in spite of the cold, helped Ma from the sleigh and folded her in his arms. She was his favorite child, I think, tho he was careful not to show it often. Perhaps it was because she had some of his skill with wood and could carve real-as-life figures or perhaps it was because she was the eldest girl and looked like grandma only with his stately height. All of his children unto the third generation were lovingly welcomed at Grandpa's home.

In later years when Josiah and I had small children and got our first motor car, it was almost as cold traveling as it had been in the sleigh. We used hot soapstones and fur robes in the car, too, and Josiah would pour a teakettle full of hot water into the radiator to warm it. The car had to be covered with a blanket as tenderly as Dandy had been when standing out in the cold.

Actually it was many years before we gave up the horse and sleigh on the farm for our roads were much better suited to them than to cars. The work horses grew heavy curing coats in the winter and had shaggy hair leggings which often became caked with ice. The children liked to brush and curry them so their coats were always in top condition. We made pets of all our animals believing they worked better when they were shown affection.

Of course that can backfire too. We had one farm horse, Felix, whom we had raised from a colt. He was a big, strong fellow but gentle as a kitten. The children played on his back, riding three at a time and tugging at his tail with perfect safety. He would pull their sled around the farm at a slow pace, allowing them to tumble on and off at will. But put him in harness to a work wagon or with Moll in double harness and he'd look around at you with the most hurt expression in his eye. It was as tho he were saying:"How can you do this to me, your friend? How can you expect me to work as these other ordinary horses do?" It was really funny to see him sigh as he leaned into the harness but he pulled with a will once he got started.

Felix was the foxy fellow who learned to swing up the bar on his box stall and let himself loose on the barn floor where he could get into the grain bin. Several times he stuffed himself so full that he had a stomachache and would stand wheezing and groaning with a hang-dog look in his eyes. He was also inordinately fond of Josephine's hair-ribbons which he nibbled and slobbered over every chance he got, ruining a good many pretty bows.

Sleigh rides now are a fun thing, if you can even find one to take. In a winter like this one, with so little snow at least in our area, sleighs would be sitting in the barn unused. Chickens used them for perches or even laid an egg there now and then. How our life-styles have changed over the years. I still have Pa's sleigh bells and when I come across them, jingle them for the memories the sounds awake.