2016 - Volume #40, Issue #2, Page #24[ Sample Stories From This Issue | List of All Stories In This Issue | Print this story | Read this issue]
Missouri Man Has Largest Sleigh Collection In U.S.
The Christmas song is familiar, but how many people have actually heard sleigh bells, ridden in a sleigh, or even touched one, asks Bill Engel? To make the song a reality for more people, the Missouri farmer collects sleighs that can be seen and touched by visitors to his private museum.
Just as unique as the 170 sleighs he’s collected in the past 17 years are the buildings where he stores them.
“I house them in buildings that originally made up most of the town of Denver, Missouri,” he laughs. Stores that once housed businesses like a hardware store, funeral parlor, drug store and movie theater, have been repurposed with larger doors and pallet racks to store the sleighs and bells, carriage lights, horse blankets, ice skates and other sleigh-related items that Engel collects.
“I hated to see these sleighs junked or torn up to make coffee tables,” he explains. The former university teacher taught accounting, but had an appreciation for history and started buying sleighs at sales. The more he purchased, the more people contacted him. And though he hasn’t found a lot of documentation or written history, Engel says he’s gathering stories from people grateful that he’s preserving part of their family history. For example, recently an older woman with cancer contacted him about her sleigh that no one in the family wanted. She died before he could thank her after he received the sleigh.
The sleighs themselves reveal a bit of world history and how their design evolved.
“I have two that date back to the 1700’s – they’re seen in old paintings,” Engel says. One is a Russian hunting sleigh in which the driver sat in the back on a bicycle seat, and the hunter sat up front and center so he could shoot. The other antique sleigh has windmill and skating paintings on it, indicating it was made in Holland or Belgium.
Engel recognizes many sleighs from the Civil War era because of their square nails, blacksmith welding, and thick wood planks. Sleighs in the late 1800’s reflect a time of climate change - a mini Ice Age - and deep snow. The sleigh bodies were built higher off the ground to accommodate the snow depth.
Another detail he has noticed is size. The older sleigh seats are smaller because people were smaller, even up to the turn of the 19th Century, when there were about 5,000 manufacturers of different types of sleighs. As companies such as Ford and Studebaker started to build automobiles, they used the same names on auto parts that had been used on sleighs - dash, glove compartment, and wings, for example.
Sleigh manufacturing gradually shifted from the Northeast to Michigan and Wisconsin, and Engel has found most of his sleighs in Iowa, Minnesota and Canada. U.S. and Canadian styles also vary.
“U.S. sleighs run in the snow. Canadians run on the snow. The runners aren’t very tall, they just stabilize and run on the belly of the sleigh,” he explains.
When sleighs were no longer needed, many were put up in barn rafters or left outside with other old equipment. Engel, who believes he has the largest collection in the U.S., wants to provide a home for as many of them as he can. He doesn’t restore them, but “stabilizes them like Grandma would have them” by fixing broken boards, livening up the wood with linseed oil, etc.
On his website for his Denver Sleigh Works, Engel invites people to contact him about renting for display, buying, selling (to museums only) and refurbishing horse-drawn sleighs of all types. Since he is also busy farming, he requests that people interested in a tour email or call ahead to set up a time.
Besides collecting sleighs, Engel collects stories and invites anyone with sleigh-related memories to contact him. For people who still have a sleigh tucked away in a building somewhere, he suggests that they write down everything they know about the sleigh and keep it with the sleigh - even written on the bottom.
“Keep the story alive, so people know where it came from,” he says.
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Bill Engel, Denver Sleigh Works, P.O. Box 67, Denver, Mo. 64441 (ph 660 786-2305; www.livingthecountrylife.com/videos/v/85281253/denver-sleigh-works.htm; firstname.lastname@example.org).
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