Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh. O'er the fields we go, laughing all the . . .
Wait just a second. When was the last time anyone dashed anywhere like that?
"At Christmas we sing, 'Over the River' and 'Jingle Bells,' but most people have never ridden in a sleigh and have no idea what the thrill of it was like," Bill Engel says.
Would you, for instance, know that those elegant Currier & Ives sleighs with the voluptuously curved seats atop graceful runners are called cutters?
Would you know a Portland cutter if you saw one?
Bet you would. Santa drives one of those square-bodied sleighs.
And Engel has several. He collects cutters and other horse-drawn sleighs the way others amass salt and pepper shakers and snow globes. His collection of 55 or so antique sleighs takes up the entire lower level of an old grocery store across from the tiny town square here.
He bought his first sleigh at an auction four years ago -- "Mom got a new car and Dad got a new sleigh," says daughter Holly Smothers -- and just like in that potato chip commercial, he couldn't stop at just one.
As he searches for these Christmas icons, Engel considers himself a savior of sleighs, and their stories.
"Everything today seems to be moving back toward our past, and tradition is what Christmas is all about," says the 63-year-old grandfather of five. "That's what we're trying to preserve."
Engel runs Denver Sleigh Works near the Missouri-Iowa border.
Denver, home to about 50 people, wears a deserted look. But the town hops when the restaurant in the old bank building, open only on Fridays and Saturdays, draws crowds with its prime rib supper.
Denver Sleigh Works stands diagonally to the restaurant. In the window, Engel has posted a vivid orange sign that urges passersby to "Think Snow."
Inside the unheated building, dimly lit by fluorescent lights, sleighs are stacked to the ceiling on a rack along one wall. The ones crowded on the "showroom" floor leave little room to walk.
"You hunt around, you go to auctions," Engel says. "You'd be surprised by how many people talk about their grandmother's sleigh in the barn."
Currier & Ives would have passed on these sleighs, each built more than 100 years ago: Engel's finds had their heyday back when women wore crinoline.
Stuffing made of wood chips and horsehair bulges out of well-worn seats. ("They didn't have foam rubber," Engel says, laughing.)
On one sleigh, the velveteen upholstery that was once a lush, pool-table green has grayed. On another, the laminated wood "dashboard" is peeling apart like a flaky biscuit.
Sleigh makers didn't have weatherproof glues and exterior paints, which is why so many of his finds are in rough shape, Engel says. Looks, though, don't matter to a man bent on making them over.
The sleighs are too old to ride in, and no one is allowed to, though Engel's grandchildren enjoy climbing into them "as long as they don't fly," one granddaughter told him.
Standing among his treasures, Engel gushes about how the Egyptians built the pyramids by hauling heavy stones atop rails, forerunner to the sleigh.
"We've had sleighs longer than we've had wheels," he says.
In the United States, sleighs enjoyed their heyday during the 1800s. At the turn of the century more than 5,000 U.S. companies made sleighs, Engel says.
They were, in essence, the first sport utility vehicles, built to haul passengers or cargo across snowy roads that no ordinary horse-and-carriage could traverse.
Engel and his wife, Linda, are longtime antique buffs. He retired in 1994 from teaching at Longview Community College in Lee's Summit, Mo., where he started the school's business department. The Engels sold the Kansas City rental properties they owned to try farming.
They now live on 3,000 acres in Worth County, Mo., where cattle and crops prevent Engel from spending much time restoring sleighs. "The idea was we were going to buy one," says his wife of 36 years. "He bought many."
Engel's passion ignited at an auction in Iowa, where he first saw a sleigh that had been made into a coffee table. As a lover of all things old, he vowed to save others from becoming home decor.
Sadly, coffee table conversions aren't the worst transgression against old sleighs, says Susan Green, curator of the Carriage Museum of America in Bird-in-Hand, Pa.
"I've seen them turn the seats into settees for the living room. The most annoying thing is when people put them outside to plant their flowers in and they kind of rot away," Green says.
"Those are ones that can't be restored because they're too far gone."
The Carriage Museum compiled one of the few books written about horse-drawn sleighs. Green said the book sells well because "people who aren't even interested in horses find sleighs intriguing."
Perhaps all the interest is from those Christmas carols romanticizing sleigh rides.
In reality, Engel says, the ride was often nothing to sing about. No windshield meant snow and wind slapped passengers in the face.
No heat meant they rode swaddled in coats and bundled under blankets. They warmed their feet on burlap sacks filled with rocks or stones heated over a fire. The ride was "colder than the devil," says the sleigh man.
And no power steering meant that trying to turn a corner in a 40-pound sleigh, a typical size, was like turning a freighter in the ocean.
"When you turn, you turn the whole sleigh. You go around a corner fast and you will tip the thing," Engel says.
Which explains this line from a verse of "Jingle Bells": "He got into a drifted bank / And we, we got upsot."
Sleighs don't all look alike, but their architecture is fairly standard.
The wood runners have a thin skin of metal to keep them gliding when the sleigh hits dry patches on the road. Grid supports attach the runners to the body, the shape of which distinguishes the various styles.
The curved or straight front is called the dash, where fancy stenciling and paint jobs separate the sleighs of the hoity-toity from hoi polloi.
Engel's collection includes not only homely sleighs used to haul things around a farm but also impressive Russian Canadian sleighs -- think "Doctor Zhivago" -- with wood skirts and fancy curlicues decorating the runners.
Sleighs typically could seat one to four people, though Engel's 19th-century two-seaters look barely wide enough to accommodate a pair of 21st-century behinds. Some sleighs had jump seats so fathers could sit while chaperoning daughters on dates.
Fancy after-market bells and whistles included holders for the whip and a boot scrape so passengers wouldn't track dirt and snow into the sleigh.
And speaking of bells, the jingle bells the horses wore around their necks did more than inspire a popular Christmas tune.
A sleigh could dash silently through the snow. In the absence of a horn, "the bells were to tell people you were coming," Engel says.
A short walk down a gravel road from Denver Sleigh Works is Engel's farm workshop, where his latest prize finds sit: a sleigh used by a country doctor and a postman's sleigh.
Engel thinks the 150-pound mail sleigh looks like a Model T on runners. He has painted the sleigh, from northern Ontario, cherry red.
He has found few books to guide his restoration efforts but is unconcerned about being historically correct. "To be honest, there were so many of them you can't be wrong," he says.
Thanks to her husband's growing reputation in antiquing circles, "we get phone calls from people who have an old sleigh," Linda Engel says. "They say, 'My sleigh is missing such and such a part.'
"My husband just usually talks them through it, just for the pleasure of it."
Engel is coy about sharing how much he's spent on his hobby, but he reveals that the mailman's sleigh from Canada cost him $350 and that he's paid far more for others.
Talk about inflation. In 1899 the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue carried two popular sleighs for $9.50 and $14.75. On sale.
In original, usable condition, sleighs sell for $450 and more at Martin Auctioneers. The New Holland, Pa., company sells more than 1,800 carriages and sleighs a year.
"You can go up in price for restored ones; some of the Currier & Ives sleighs [sell] for $4,200," says office manager Shirley Morgan.
"Right now, as far as sleighs are concerned, we still have people out there restoring and selling them," she said. "This time of year, a lot of interior decorators are looking for them to use as props and for decorating."
Engel's collection of 55 sleighs, Morgan says, is sizable. "Sleighs are easy to come by," she says, either new or antique.
Engel stays away from big auctions where the bidding gets competitive and usually avoids the big-time prices on eBay, where antique, horse-drawn sleighs are a hit-or-miss item.
No, the savior of sleighs would rather buy the unloved vehicle left forgotten in someone's barn.
The big fancy ones, restored to their Christmas-card charm, have already found their salvation.