This piece is more about transportation and work than it is about roads or streets, but it is a fascinating part of the history of America and something we generally don’t think about because the knowledge has not been passed down the generations due to changes in the way we live. Probably about ten years ago I stumbled across a book entitled “Diary of an Early American Boy” by Eric Sloane, and I was completely captivated by the illustrations and the patient recounting of the lives and work of those who settled in America. Sloane collected almanacs and tools, and he had acquired an immense knowledge of how people lived and worked in early America. He was quite conversant in the different trades of early Americans, and he detailed weather and farming traditions in great detail. He wrote several books about life in times gone by (including books on barns, covered bridges, and more) and I devoured them all. I never thought I would read books about tools, but I couldn’t get enough information! They are terrific resources and I refer to them often. I highly recommend them if you are interested in how our ancestors built things that seem impossible or how a chair that’s 200 years old can still be sturdy. These folks really knew what they were doing!
But I digress. The topic of this piece is sleds and sleighs, which is one way settlers in America were able to work and travel over winter roads. Let’s begin with sleighs. Sleighs were absolutely necessary for travel in the winter when there was no way to clear the snow from the roads except for shoveling. Not only did sleighs carry you from one place to another, but they helped pack the snow down on the roads and make them more passable. Sleighs came in a variety of sizes and could carry a couple of passengers or a whole crowd. We have information in our files at CCHS about the Higginsville Tavern and the annual Christmas parties held there with dinner and dancing as well as sleighing parties of young people who would stop there for refreshments. Here is a previous post about Higginsville: Lost Places of Cortland County: Higginsville (mailchi.mp). The G.Z. House Diary from Virgil has stories about impassable roads and the use of sleighs even through mud. The wheels of wagons got mired down in the mud and left ruts which made navigating already rough roads even more of a nightmare. Sleighs served so many purposes that we just don’t think about!
Before moving onto sleds, just a quick word about bells. Before automobiles, horses provided the power for transportation, and a horse-drawn sleigh over snow-covered roads was quiet and could prove disastrous for pedestrians or any other sleighs on the road. Sleighbells were originally used to alert people that a sleigh was coming, just as a car horn or a train whistle alert people to move out of the way. Bells provide a much lovelier sound than a horn or a whistle, don’t you agree? We have a beautiful set of sleigh bells from the L.J. Fitzgerald family that give a wonderful sound.
Have you ever wondered how on EARTH our ancestors built stone houses, bridges, and walls all over the place? How did they move all those stones? Or how about how they moved logs for building homes or for firewood? I suppose I always thought they used wagons, but after reading Eric Sloane’s books and seeing many references here at CCHS, they did not use wagons for a variety of reasons. They used sleds. To me, a wagon wheel seems like it’s sturdily constructed and that it would handle the rough conditions of work and travel in the past, but wagon wheels are actually pretty delicate and require upkeep to keep them in perfect working order. The heavier the loads and the rougher the roads, the worse the wear and tear on the wheels. Enter the sled. Sleds were low tech, could be used on snow or any other terrain, and were rugged enough to carry just about anything. For instance, I found an amazing photo of a sled loaded with logs in a book entitled “The Transportation of Logs on Sleds” by Alexander Michael Koroleff and Ralph C. Bryant, published in 1925.
Our ancestors were smart, industrious, and ingenious. They had hard work to do, and they figured out ways to work smarter, not harder. If you have any interest in tools of yesteryear, I’d encourage you to search for Eric Sloane’s books and learn more. They really are incredible! We have several Sloane books at CCHS, and although we do not lend books out, our members are entitled to free research in the Kellogg Memorial Research Center. Membership is very affordable, and you can probably read a book in an afternoon because they are not long and there are fabulous illustrations. We look forward to helping you dive into history! ~Tabitha