Long before all-wheel drive and snow tires, sleighs were essential winter transportation.
Those that survive are now antiques.
Fifteen years ago, cattle farmer Bill Engel went to auction in northeast Iowa when he bought his first wooden sleigh. He noticed people purchased these historic vehicles to tear them apart.
“They were taking the runner parts and making them into coffee tables,” says Engel.
Engel says that destroys history. One-hundred years ago, sleighs were used for everyday tasks, such as farming, delivering mail and hauling groceries, but they were also used for fun.
When he was much younger, Engel used to offer sleigh rides to people touring his sleigh shop. Now at age 76, he just remembers the thrill of riding in one.
“There’s something about the cold and cuddling up in a sleigh with a blanket on top and to hear and watch the breath of the horses in the crisp of the night,” Engel said. "It encompasses all the things that are good and enjoyable.”
Once Engel started filling his barn with sleighs, word spread and now he has more than 100. Those sleighs have put tiny Denver, Mo., on the map.
“Many times people call and say where in Denver are you located? And they think I’m in Denver, Colorado,” he said. “They can’t visualize because I don’t even have a restroom here other than an outhouse.”
Denver is quiet little town sandwiched between the rolling hills of northwest Missouri, about 20 minutes south of the Iowa border. Only 39 people live there. The few buildings in town are mostly either run-down or abandoned. Inside what used to be a drugstore, Engel points to one part of his collection.
“Now, these are all cutters up here, and a cutter is a one-seat, two people,” he said.
Across the street, he opens the door to even more sleighs. The sleighs fill up eight buildings — wall to wall. Some of the sleighs are small, not much bigger than a bicycle, and others are bulky behemoths that took a team of horses to pull them though the snow. They come in a rainbow of colors from John Deere green to cherry red. Engel said one is blood red.
“Most sleighs that were red have been repainted, but if you find some that have not been repainted, it was made out of oxblood,” he said.
Most of Engel’s sleighs date back more than 100 years, coming from all over the United States. He didn’t have to buy them all.
“This lady from Virginia was dying of cancer and said she wanted her sleigh to be taken care of, so I said send it to me,” he said.
Engel said he wants to do more than just save sleighs, but save what they represent.
“You try to better them and maintain them, and it just irritates me considerably when other family members like leaving them out in the rain and snow,” he said.
Engel hopes one day his children and grandchildren will continue his tradition and keep the stories and memories alive for each and every sleigh collected.