Dashing through the snow: Sleighing and sleigh rides

By Ian McKechnie

Lindsay’s Dr. Bob Watson loved to take passengers out in the winter in his horse-drawn sleigh. Photo courtesy of Margaret Jean Watson.

Although it is customary to sing “Dashing through the snow/ In a one-horse open sleigh” during the Christmas season, the snow is often not plentiful enough for a good old-fashioned sleigh ride until at least January. Though not nearly so common as they were a few generations ago, horse-drawn sleighs and sleigh rides are among the most ubiquitous symbols of winter recreation in North America.

Here in Kawartha Lakes, as elsewhere, sleighs were the original off-road vehicle, used to move goods and people across fields and frozen lakes before the advent of passable roads. Those living in rural communities travelled to and from town in vehicles ranging from the small cutter drawn by a single horse to larger sleighs capable of accommodating an entire family. Farmers and lumbermen alike relied on heavy sleighs to draw logs from the bush every winter, while in 1891 some 15,000 bricks were shipped from Fox’s brickyard south of Lindsay to Verulam Township entirely by farmers’ sleighs.

With so many sleighs coming and going at all hours, it was not uncommon for children to jump onto them on their way home from school — a dangerous practice vehemently discouraged by concerned editors in the local papers. “Boys, be careful about stealing a ride by ‘catching on sleighs,’” exclaimed the Lindsay Expositor on Jan. 9, 1873. “A boy in town had his leg broken, a few days ago, by being caught by another sleigh passing the one to which he was clinging,” the Expositor warned.

When they weren’t busy stealing rides on passing sleighs, many of old Victoria County’s young adults used them for dating. “The merry jingle of sleigh bells, the sparkle of the crystal snow in the lambent light of the moon, and the confiding creature that nestles closely to him beneath the buffalo robes, tenderly clasping his left hand in hers, while his right holds the reins, constitute the winter night’s poem that is floating through the doting lover’s soul,” wrote a romantically minded — albeit verbose — correspondent in the Jan. 16, 1879 edition of the Woodville Advocate. (Five years later, on Jan. 7, 1884, the same newspaper declared that “sleighing, like love, puts all ranks on the same level of enjoyment” and rhetorically asked of those inclined to be flirtatious, “when was it ever known to decline a ride because the sleigh was not new and handsome? Never!”)

Of course, some evenings that began with a romantic sleigh ride ended unhappily, as in mid-January of 1888, when a young man from Woodville rented a sleigh at the local livery stable to take to a party in Manilla. When he refused to return home, his lady friend ordered the horse out, took her seat in the sleigh, and drove home herself — leaving her date to walk. “It is safe to say he will not trifle with her again,” the gossipy Woodville Advocate said in its coverage of the affair.

More family-friendly occasions transpired during the annual “sleigh drives” coordinated by local Sunday schools. These events typically took place in late January or early February, and invariably concluded with tea and refreshments back at the host church. Nearly 25 sleigh-loads of happy-looking children took in the “drive” organized by St. Paul’s Anglican Church on January 20 1893; as reported in the Canadian Post a week later, “the keen air having sharpened their appetites, an incredible quantity of good (refreshments) disappeared as a result of the vigorous onslaught made upon them.”

Not quite a decade later, the Presbyterian young people of Janetville hosted a midwinter concert and social that attracted a large contingent of Lindsay youth who were bundled up and borne to their destination on two sleighs. According to the Jan. 30, 1902, issue of the Watchman Warder, “one of the sleighs was so heavily loaded that they had to put on two teams of horses.”

Carriage-makers such as S.S. Gainer of Fenelon Falls and Lindsay’s L. O’Connor did quite a trade in cutters and sleighs during the winter months. O’Connor took particular pride in his products, with his sleighs being built of second-growth oak and his cutters of second-growth hickory. As with other types of horse-drawn vehicle, however, the cutter and sleigh largely disappeared from the winter scene as roads improved and local citizens took to motorized vehicles such as cars and snowmobiles.

Well, not quite. The late Dr. Bob Watson, a long-time surgeon at Ross Memorial Hospital, was one of many local equine enthusiasts who regularly hitched up a horse to take family and friends for sleigh rides during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

“The delightful little cutter with one of the riding horses trained to draw it made for a fun outing for two, with bells jangling and snow flying!” remembers Watson’s widow, Margaret Jean. On other occasions, the Watsons might have hitched up their heavy draft Belgians to a big sleigh. “You could tell that the horses were enjoying the outing as much as the people,” she recalls, “and there is something lovely about going along through the less-travelled lanes with barely a sound except for the bells!”

2 Comments

  1. Bob Moore says:

    A lovely recollection of bygone era!

  2. Kathy Anderson says:

    Thank you Ian for your delightful article.
    My great aunt used to tell us of the annual sleigh ride they took from their farm in Nestleton to Mount Horeb to attend a family Christmas gathering. I’ve often marvelled at that distance! It was such a happy memory for her.

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