‘Good Sleighing’

The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.

If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or information@fentonhistorycenter.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.

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By Karen E. Livsey


With the snowfall over the past couple of weeks, winter sports enthusiasts are happily enjoying the snow. Years ago this snowfall would have brought out the horse and sleigh. People would go for a ride around town just to get out. Back then, sleighing was recreation – as well as a mode of transportation.

Passengers kept warm with layers of clothing plus thick blankets, buffalo robes or even a bearskin. Sometimes a foot warmer was used. This was usually a box made of pierced tin. The holes in the tin would allow the heat from the hot coals in the box to escape and warm the air around the feet. Even hot potatoes could be used in place of hot coals.

Sleighs used in the city were often one-horse sleighs or cutters. Various styles were available. The Albany sleigh was a lower body with a more slanted back, while the Portland sleigh had a more upright back. The Albany sleigh also had a more severely curved front and dash than other sleighs, giving it a long, low, sleek design.

Many of the sleighs had only one seat for the driver and a passenger or possibly two passengers. Some sleighs were larger with two seats and could accommodate a family or a group of friends. Occasionally sleighs had a seat for the driver and two additional seats vis-a-vis, or facing each other.

The sleigh at the Fenton History Center is a version of an Albany sleigh with its low back and the severely curved dash in the front of the sleigh. We do not know the maker of the sleigh. Sleighs could be made by carriage makers or wagon makers, and most areas had at least one carriage or wagon maker. Or someone could purchase a sleigh from a more famous maker from afar. Some sleigh makers, like carriage makers, had their own trademark painting and decoration for sleighs. The Sears, Roebuck and the Montgomery Ward catalogs in the mid 1890s sold “Cutter Stuff.” This included runners for Portland sleighs as well as the same for swell body cutters and for square box cutters. Neither catalog offered the actual sleigh. They also had replacement runners, etc. for bob sleds.

Diaries from the late 1800s often recorded the weather of the day. Many times if there was a mention of a snowfall, it was followed by a comment about “good sleighing today.” People still walked or took the trolley to work or shopping, but would get the horse and sleigh out for an evening or weekend ride. Good sleighing could mean a longer trip into the countryside to visit friends and relatives.

At one time, New York state passed a law requiring sleighs to carry a device to alert others to the presence of the sleigh. Sleighs gliding through snow were quiet, and other pedestrians or other sleighs may not hear them and know they were near. This gave rise to the sleigh bells that were attached to the sleigh or to the horse’s harness so everyone was alerted to the presence of a sleigh.

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The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.

If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.