A Historical Look at Sleigh Riding in Bethel, CT.
This time of the year, we hear a lot of songs about sleigh rides. Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland, and Sleigh Ride are usually the first examples that come to mind. However, in 19th century New England, sleigh rides weren’t just something you sang about; they were part of everyday life and frequently played a vital role in some of the year’s most exciting social events.
Before the days of all-weather tires and all-wheel drive, and long before the horseless carriage itself became the dominant form of transportation, sleighs were the preferred means of navigating city streets, country roads, and even open fields during the snow-filled winter months. The following snippets from the pages of The Newtown Bee covering 1877 to 1909 are offered to illustrate just how prevalent the practice once was in our area. Most examples come from the paper’s weekly Bethel column, but a few come from out of town as well. The quotes are presented in their original grammatical form.
“Outside, the snow is falling, and friends are calling, ‘yoo-hoo!’
Come on; it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you”
In 1878 it seemed as if the weather would deliver the quintessential White Christmas.
December 24, 1878
“O the beautiful snow! It began falling Saturday morning, and at present writing promises to make a stay. Everybody seems to desire a good fall of snow so that they can hear the merry sleigh bell jingle and take a sleigh ride.”
But later that same day, a rise in temperature and the arrival of liquid rather than frozen precipitation put an end to the chance of gliding through a winter wonderland.
“The pouring rain of Saturday night washed away all of the snow, and with it vanished the dream of delightful sleigh rides.”
“Just get a bobtailed bay, Two forty as his speed, Hitch him to an open sleigh,
And crack! You’ll take the lead.”
(A bobtail is a horse’s tail that is cut short to keep it from getting caught in the reins. A bay horse is reddish-brown. Two forty refers to a mile in two minutes and forty seconds at the trot or 22.5 miles per hour. This speed was once considered a breakneck clip.)
If you were lucky enough to own a sporty new sleigh, you wanted to be sure to show it off.
February 2, 1894
“The big snowstorm gave Charles Hawley a chance to bring out his new two-seated sleigh. It is a daisy.” (“Daisy” was a Victorian term that meant the best or most marvelous.)
January 6, 1899
“Tuesday's sleighing brought out a good many stylish teams onto the road. The high-back sleigh takes the lead in style and for comfort riding. The ladies took the lead in numbers, and a few held the reins and were graceful drivers, looking their best in plumed hats and warm wraps.”
“Now the ground is white, Go it while you're young, Take the girls tonight,
And sing this sleighing song.”
As this verse from the song—most often called “Jingle Bells” but initially published in 1857 as “One Horse Open Sleigh”—indicates, sleighing seems to have been a pastime best enjoyed by the young. The following news items strongly support this idea.
February 27, 1903
“The young people have been taking advantage of the good sleighing and have enjoyed several sleigh-ride parties this week.”
March 10, 1893
“A party of young people from this town organized a sleigh party last Monday evening and drove to Georgetown, where they proceeded to enjoy themselves, after the manner of young folks.”
January 7, 1898
“The young folks of this vicinity find the Old Put House a very pleasant place to spend an evening in whist or dancing. Sleighing parties will be provided for on short notice by calling on or addressing the proprietor, D. H. Cottrell, Bethel.” (The Old Put House was on the grounds of Putnam State Park. Whist is a card game that enjoyed great popularity in the 19th century.)
Young people would get together with their friends and organize sleigh parties. Certain establishments and locations became popular meccas for these energetic bands of adventurers.
February 23, 1894
“Proprietor Leonard of Dick's has enjoyed a good run of sleigh parties during the last week at his popular hotel. Last week Friday, 25 Bethelites from the Congregational church enjoyed a supper. On Saturday, he entertained 30 from Danbury; on Monday night of this week, a party of 25 from Bethel were his guests.”
(Dick’s Hotel stood at 19 Main Street in Newtown until it was destroyed by fire on September 8, 1897. It was replaced by the Newtown Inn, which more recently was known as The Inn at Newtown.)
March 6, 1903
“BETHEL - AN EXCURSION TO NEWTOWN - Last week, Tuesday, February 24, about 20 from here took a sleigh ride to Newtown, where they enjoyed an old fashioned turkey at the Grand Central Hotel. The occasion was greatly enjoyed by all who went.”
(The Grand Central Hotel stood at what is now 29 Main Street in Newtown. Later it was The Yankee Drover Inn until it too was consumed by fire on January 28, 1981. The Dana-Holcombe House Inn now occupies its former location.)
Some of these sleigh parties could prove hazardous and might also last until the wee hours of the morning.
January 15, 1904
“DANBURY YOUNG PEOPLE ENJOY A SLEIGH RIDE TO NEWTOWN WITH SUPPER AT THE GRAND CENTRAL HOTEL.
A jolly party of Danbury young people enjoyed a sleigh ride to Newtown, Monday night, with supper at the Grand Central Hotel. A fine feast was prepared by Mine Host Houlihan, which was given attention by the excursionists, whose appetites had been whetted by their long ride. When in the Dodgingtown woods, their sleigh capsized, and one of the party was quite badly cut over one eye. The party arrived about 10.30 p.m., and after supper, the tables were cleared away and dancing was enjoyed till 3 a.m.”
We'll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop,
At the fireplace, while we watch the chestnuts pop, pop, pop, pop!”
One unique characteristic of late-Victorian sleighing was that groups of revelers would often arrive en masse at an unsuspecting friend’s home and proceed to stage an impromptu party. In addition, as the evening progressed and the thermometer plummeted, these uninvited guests would often grow increasingly reluctant to leave.
January 25, 1895
“With scarcely a moment's warning, a sleighing party from Bethel, Wednesday evening, took possession of George F. Duncombe's home. The party consisted of Edgar T. Andrews, L. A. Stone, T. A. Evans, Charles Bailey, and Edward Peal, with their wives. On entering, Mr. Andrews, with his usual genial nature, introduced the company, pointing out with pride the handsomest lady in the crowd. The fire was turned on, and after getting warmed up the party was equal to the occasion. Jokes were cracked, and some fine music was enjoyed. At 11
O 'clock they faced a 10 above zero wind for Bethel, trying to convince the host they had telephoned him during the day.”
Occasionally some individuals so strongly yearned for a sleigh ride they stooped to illegal means to obtain it. An ingenious thief made off with property belonging to two different individuals who lived on the Bethel-Newtown border to arrange for his winter transportation, as the following piece alludes.
February 16, 1894
“The young people of Elmwood and Plumtrees enjoyed a sleigh ride last Friday night and had a merry time. Someone that wanted to take a sleigh ride on Saturday night, took Charles Hinman's horse and Andrew Sherman's sleigh and is taking a long ride.”
The instant the first good snow of the winter season arrived, blacksmiths saw a boom in business as their customers scrambled to have their horses fitted with shoes that would provide better traction in the snow. The village smithy could also assist with swapping out your wagon wheels for “hub runners” that would magically convert your carriage to a sleigh. Those farriers who were most proficient might encourage greater business by boasting of their abilities.
December 8, 1880
“The snowfall of Thanksgiving, with the one and one-half inches of snow and ice last week, Dec. 1st, made sleighing lively for two or three days and gave our blacksmiths a beautiful harvest. The knight of the anvil, Geo. Crane, in Dodgingtown, with one helper, shod eighteen horses on Monday and fitted part of the shoes. He reports, at least eighty shod during the week, with all shoes to be fitted after Monday. He once shod, without helper, seventy-seven horses in eleven consecutive working days.”
Sleighs were not just for fun. They were for work as well and could be used for a variety of purposes.
February 15, 1901 - Redding
“The sleighing during the past week has been excellent and many have utilized it to draw wood and get logs to the sawmills.”
Sleighs were used by just about any business enterprise that needed reliable transportation over slick, snow-covered roads. Sometimes there was confusion regarding just what was being transported. This article comes not from Bethel but Winsted, Connecticut, but it was too good not to include.
February 10, 1905
“Edmund Angell, driver for the Winsted steam laundry, seeing a covered basket on the front porch of the St James Episcopal rectory, Monday morning, and thinking it contained soiled linen for the laundry, picked it up, placed it with other family washings in the sleigh, and drove awaydown Main Street. He had not gone far, however, before he heard a noise resembling a baby’s cry. The horse was stopped, and the driver quickly noted that the cries were human and from the basket, he had taken from the rector's porch. Raising the soft blankets which covered the basket, young Angell found the infant son, John Chauncey Wolcott Linsley. He hastened back to the rectory with the basket containing the baby and asked for the basket with the washing for the laundry, which he was then given. Many prominent people in Winsted are having their children sleep out of doors as a health measure.”
“A day or two ago, I thought I'd take a ride, And soon, Miss Fanny Bright, Was seated by my side”
Going for a sleigh ride was especially popular with young men who were engaged in a courtship. It also appears that distracted drivers are not a problem solely confined to the present day.
March 4, 1879
“Monroe is wide awake over a runaway. Last week one of our bon-ton gentlemen took a sleigh ride with a young lady. The sleigh struck a bank and turned out the occupants in the snow. The horse ran away, completely demolishing the sleigh so that it was sold the next morning for two dollars. The young man says if he had had both hands, the horse would not have run. Moral: Look out for ‘both hands’ when sleighing with ladies.”
(“Bon-ton’ as used in the article indicates fashionable or stylish.)
“The horse was lean and lank, Misfortune seemed his lot, He got into a drifted bank, And then we got upsot.”
Sleigh accidents were not restricted to amorous young men not minding the reins. Sleighs were fitted with “jingle bells,” or more appropriately, sleigh bells because when traveling at night, the clip-clop sound of a horse’s hooves is muffled by soft snow, and a sleigh’s metal runners gliding over a frozen surface can be nearly silent. Entering an intersection at night could prove calamitous if one could not hear the sound of another sleigh coming from a different direction. Add to this the fact that sleighs progressing through the darkness had their way lit only by a dim, oil lantern attached to their front, and you had a recipe for inevitable disaster. To modern drivers accustomed to vehicles equipped with LED headlights, shock-absorbing bumpers, headrests, shoulder-restraint safety belts, automatic braking systems, and of course, self-deploying air-bags, a wooden sleigh would offer very little protection.
January 11, 1885
“E. E. Ferry, while returning from Bethel, Friday evening, met with an accident which might have proved serious. Mr. Ferry was run into by an unknown team and thrown from his sleigh. The sleigh was broken into several pieces. The party who had caused the accident did not stop to see if he needed any assistance.”
January 1, 1882
“AN ACCIDENT TO A SLEIGHING PARTY. The scholars and teachers of the New Street School, Danbury, started out last Friday afternoon, to enjoy a sleigh ride. They came through Bethel and were all right until they reached Fountain Place, when they came in contact with one of the mountains of snow which are quite numerous about town, which overturned the sleigh, spilling the occupants into the snow. Some of them were pretty well cut and bruised, especially one of the teachers, Mrs. Friedman, who received quite a shock from the effects of her fall. Fortunately, the party escaped without any bones being broken.” (Fountain Place, as mentioned here, is today’s P.T. Barnum Square.)
January 13, 1905
“E. A. UNDERHILL INJURED. - E. A. Underhill, whose home is in Plumtrees district, had a bad accident, Friday morning, December 30, as he was driving to his work at Baird, Unteidt & Co.'s hat shop. As he was crossing the railroad track in Plumtrees, his sleigh slewed, catching the runner in the track, overturning the sleigh, and throwing Mr. Underhill out. His right arm and back were badly bruised. He succeeded in stopping the horse, after being dragged a few rods on the ground.” (The railroad track mentioned above was the Shepaug Railroad connecting link that formerly crossed Plumtrees Road. The Baird, Unteidt & Company hat factory was located on Main Street, where the Phineas Park apartment complex now stands.
The term “slew,” as used in this instance, means to turn, veer, or skid. A rod is a linear measurement equivalent to 16.5 feet.)
Children out to make the best of winter fun sometimes discovered that sleds and sleighs don’t always mix well.
February 19, 1904 - Newtown
“John Casey, the young son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Casey, was quite badly hurt while coasting, last week Thursday afternoon, near his home. The boy ran into a team, turning him over, and the sleigh ran over him, cutting a deep gash on his head. Dr. A. L. Schuyler dressed the wound.”
Sometimes accidents involving sleighs even proved fatal, as the following account of one such tragic incident points out.
January 30, 1903 - Newtown
“JOHN R. TOMLINSON'S SUDDEN, DEATH. STRUCK BY THE NEW HAVEN TRAIN ON THE WAY HOME FROM HIS SAWMILL, MONDAY NIGHT, AND INSTANTLY KILLED. - The local community was shocked, Monday night, to learn that that genial and highly esteemed citizen, John K. Tomlinson, had met his death, having been struck by the New Haven train going north at Glover's crossing, about one mile south of Newtown station. Mr. Tomlinson had nearly crossed the track when the engine caught him, his body being hurled a distance of 60 feet. Death doubtless followed instantly, as his neck was broken, one leg and arm was broken and he was more or less bruised on one side. The sleigh in which he rode was cut practically in halves and the horse, frightened, started on a run for its home. The animal kept on past Mr. Tomlinson's house but was stopped by Frank H. Mitchell as it was passing his house. Mr. Tomlinson as a rule was at home by the time the trains go north, but on this evening he was late and met his death. The fact of his age, coupled with a slight deafness, was doubtless the reason he did not hear the oncoming train.”
In the end, sleighs would succumb not to safety concerns but to advancing technology.
By the time these latter articles were published, the automobile was already rapidly gaining ascendancy. To accommodate this new form of transportation, roads would henceforth be conscientiously plowed, thus virtually eliminating any chance of “riding in a wonderland of snow.” The era of sleigh rides on public roads would softly clip-clop its way to obsolescence, leaving in its wake succeeding generations who would never come to know “what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.”
One Horse Open Sleigh, 1857, James Lord Pierpont
Sleigh Ride, 1948, Leroy Anderson, Lyrics by Mitchell Parish, 1950
Winter Wonderland, 1934, Felix Bernard, Lyrics by Richard Bernhard Smith