By Norris Chambers
When you think of sleds, you probably think of old Dobbin pulling a one horse open sleigh through the snow at Christmas time or a kid lying on his stomach sliding down a snowy hillside. those are good thoughts and represent a segment or sleighing that is real and entertaining in some parts of the world. However, the sleighs I am going to tell you about are a little different. Although the principle is the same, the name was different. We called them “sleds” and they were used extensively in the old days. Most of them were “one horse” affairs, but some were made for two horses and could haul larger loads.
The typical sled was made by taking two 2X4 or 2X6 pieces of lumber, sawing one end of each at about a 45 degree angle, then placing them on edge and nailing boards to the top. A hole was drilled in the angled end of each and a chain or cable placed through them and tied. The horse, or mule, was hitched to the center and it was pulled along on the ground. The usual use of a sled was for gathering row crops such as maize or corn (even potatoes) and transporting it to the storage area. Of course high side boards were used for this operation so that a taller load could be hauled. The sled was constructed narrow enough to fit between two rows with the horse walking in front. A person on each side of the boxed sled could either cut off the maize heads or pull the corn and toss it in,
If a sled was not available, sometimes a farm wagon was used. The disadvantage of this was that the wagon was wide and had to straddle a row. This often knock the middle row down and made it more of a back-breaking task to gather the grain from it. The middle row was called the “down row” and usually the youngest worked to assigned to it. He followed behind the wagon, gathering the heads or ears and tossing them into the wagon. Older workers took the other two adjacent rows and pitched the crop into the wagon. This process worked, but the sled was much better - especially if only one or two workers were involved. The sled was a little harder to unload because it was practically on the ground. But unloading was done with a wide pitch fork and in most cases the height didn’t make that much difference.
The wooden runners used for these sleds were subject to considerable wear and one season was about the life of a pair. But they could easily be replace or the sled rebuilt, so this was the type of sled used by most small farmers. Some sled builders used oak runners, trimmed flat on side for the boards and left round on the bottom. This helped keep the sled from miring in soft dirt of sand. The narrow runners would sink quickly, and were practically useless in sandy land. This was not a problem for us since the area where we planted corn and maize was composed of red clay and hard top soil.
In addition to gathering crops,. sleds were very good for moving rocks, logs, dirt or any other heavy material. A sled was almost a necessity for hauling firewood from the pasture to the house. Since the sled was low on the ground, high lifting was not required, as in a wagon. Of course as sleds were used more, the wear on the runners was greater. Clifton and I helped that problem by doing a little blacksmith work. We took two old steel wagon tires and painstakingly heated and form them to fit around the front and back and the bottom of the 2X6 runners, attaching them high on the front and back with long screws. These steel treads worked for years and the sled was used for many different jobs.
You could take a horse and pull a sled into an area that was inaccessible to a wagon with two horses. A load that could not be lifted on a wagon could easily be loaded on a sled with a pry bar. A 55 gallon barrel could be set on the sled and filled with water at the edge of a tank or creek and moved anywhere for crop watering or family use. Side boards could be placed around the outer edge and the boxed area provided an excellent receptacle for any collection of loose items.
When we were younger, we made a sled for our donkey. The primary purpose of this “one donkey open sleigh” was for the run or riding around. We built a nice bench on it that would comfortably seat two and put many miles on it just fooling around. That sled was a little top heavy when we were both seated, and spills happened quite frequently on some of the rough country we traversed. But it wasn’t hard to straighten it up and crawl back on. The donkey didn’t mind the delay. Donkey’s never do.
Some folks wonder why we didn’t use wheels instead of sled runners. Small wheels were practically useless in rough country and to use large wheels defeated the purpose of the sled. We tried putting wheels on sleds, but the larger wheels and the narrow wheel base made a top heavy machine that would tip over gladly at the slightest invitation. It isn’t much fun having to reload corn or maize out in the field without a fork. The sled just worked better as a sled.
On hard ground, a sled works very well after a rain - it slides through the mud as easily as through snow. A sled makes an excellent camping vehicle. We could load our sled with everything we needed for camping and fishing and the donkey could take us much farther up the creek than we would normally go for a night of living with nature. The donkey also enjoyed the nice grass on the banks of the creek - he could get to ungrazed places that a cow wouldn’t dare approach.
Does this tale have a moral? If it does, it is this: Never use a wagon if a sled will work better, and if you can’t haul it, try dragging it!
Norris always appreciates your comments
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