STURBRIDGE, Mass. (Jan. 14, 2013) – Old Sturbridge Village celebrates the nostalgia, romance and grace of gliding over the snow in horse-drawn sleighs at its annual Antique Sleigh Rally set for Sat. February 2. Vintage sleighs pulled by a variety of horses – from tiny miniature horses to giant Clydesdales – will converge on the Village for the sleigh rally, which begins at 11:00 a.m. Drivers will compete in a dozen different classes, including the popular “Sleigh Dog” and “Currier & Ives” divisions. The sleigh rally is open to the public and free with museum admission. Watch the OSV Sleigh Rally video; for details: 800-SEE-1830; www.osv.org.
Among vintage sleighs featured will be Portland and Albany cutters, utility sleighs, and bob sleighs pulled by different horse breeds, including Haflinger, Standard Breed, Gypsy, Morgan, Arabian, Clydesdale, Percheron, Registered Mini and Spotted Draft Saddlebred. The competition includes divisions for adults and juniors. In the "Currier & Ives" class drivers and passengers wear vintage costumes, and in the "Sleigh Dog" class, drivers' dogs get to come along for the ride.
Other winter activities at Old Sturbridge Village include ice skating (bring your own skates), horse-drawn sleigh rides around the Common, and sledding on 1830s-style sleds (weather permitting). Museum historians will present “Of Ice and Men: a History of Skates and Skating,” and display antique ice skates from the OSV collection. After enjoying the museum’s outdoor winter activities, visitors can warm up indoors beside one of the Village’s many cozy fireplaces and take part in hands-on crafts and activities. Children can also spend time “pretending” in Old Sturbridge Village’s popular “KidStory” indoor play area.
Smooth riding in sleighs
According to Old Sturbridge Village historians, getting about in winter via sleigh over snow-packed roads was easier and smoother than navigating bumpy roads at other times of the year. After the first snow of the season, early New England families usually switched from wheels to runners and from carriages to cutters. Even stagecoaches exchanged their wheels for runners in winter.
"For this one season at least, New Englanders enjoyed paved roads, even though they were paved with ice and snow," notes OSV Curator Tom Kelleher. "Instead of plowing the snow away after a storm as we do now, teams of horses and oxen were driven out to trample the snow down. Rolling the roads did not become the norm until the end of the 1800s. Sleighs and sleds dashed along the smooth, slick surfaces much more quickly and comfortably than was possible over rutted, muddy dirt roads. And with rivers and lakes frozen solid, these usual obstacles to travel instead provided convenient and level shortcuts to one’s destination."
Sleighs came in many shapes and sizes, from utilitarian vehicles resembling wooden boxes set on runners with benches inside for passengers, to the finely crafted and polished cutters of the high Victorian era. Bobsleighs were mounted on four short runners called "bobs" that maneuvered independently, making these sleighs easier to turn sharply and less likely to tip over than sleighs with a single long runner on each side.
According to Kelleher, America saw growing prosperity and underwent a transportation revolution in the 19th century, and new sleigh designs accompanied this. The cutter, with a single seat for two passengers, and pulled by one horse, evolved in the early 1800s. These tended to fall into two styles: the gracefully curved, swell-body of the Albany cutter, credited to James Guild of Albany, New York; and a similar sleigh with straighter lines, known as a Portland cutter after designer Peter Kimball of Portland, Maine.
Sleigh bells were not just for decoration but served a very real purpose - warning pedestrians and other vehicles of fast approaching horses and sleighs. Without bells, sleighs slid so silently over the snow that collisions were common. Indeed, in 1820 a Massachusetts law required horse-drawn sleighs to have "at least three bells attached to some part of the harness thereof.” Negligent drivers could be fined up to $20 – almost a month’s wages at the time – and were liable for any damages resulting from a collision.
Sleighing season was also a time for the young to court and families to visit. Winter was the social season in early New England. Crops had been harvested, livestock butchered and preserved, and while there was always work to do on the farm, tasks were not as pressing during the short days and long nights of winter.
"People not only had time to relax a bit and socialize, but traveling to see friends and relatives was easier in the winter," Kelleher notes. "The winter months were filled with visiting, organized dances, impromptu 'frolics,' and other social occasions. Travel by horse-drawn sleigh usually played a major role in all the cold weather jocularity."
Old Sturbridge Village celebrates life in the 1830s, and is one of the country’s largest living history museums. Located just off the Massachusetts Turnpike and Routes I-84 and 20 in Sturbridge, Mass., the Village is open year-round, but hours vary seasonally. Winter hours are Wed. - Sun. 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (the Village is open on all Monday holidays); Admission is: $24 for adults; $22 for seniors; $8 for children ages 3-17; children 2 and under are admitted free. Each admission includes free parking and a free second-day visit within 10 days. Woo Card subscribers get 25% of adult daytime admission; college Woo cardholders receive 50% off adult daytime admission. For event details, visit www.osv.org or call 800-SEE-1830.