Thursday, February 12, 2009

Winter Sleighing in Otsego County

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
Otsego County winters can be brutal. The cold, wind, and snow often combine to create arctic conditions. But what made travel different in the late 19th century was the lack of professional road maintenance, the necessity of keeping snow on the roads for sleighing, and the nature of the vehicles themselves. Most vehicles were open, travel was slow, and spontaneous changes in the weather could stop travel altogether.
The arrival of snow meant that buggies and wagons were washed off and put into storage and the sleighs were taken out. Sleighing was best if the snow base was solid and smooth, a condition seldom met in upstate New York’s variable climate. Bobsleighs and straight sleighs were built for strength but had low clearance. The straight sleigh, with its one continuous runner on each side, was less easily upset during tight maneuvers or deep snow.
Cutters were best for deep snow and would ride over the drifts like small boats. They were of more elaborate design, could carry less weight, and usually were purchased as a fancy sleigh for light travel. If conditions changed rapidly, travelers could be stranded without the proper sleigh or, even worse, with no snow at all.
Regardless of the effort, hardship, and inconvenience of snow travel, sleighing was a winter pastime that could be enjoyable. People appreciated the beauty of the winter landscape then as much as we do now.
(From Winter Sleighing in Otsego County by Timothy Hamway, Heritage, vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1997.)
Left: Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine, ca. 1860, Artist Unidentified, oil on canvas, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, Cooperstown, NY, N0321.1961
Right: Winter Carnival, 1986, by Janet Munro, mixed media on masonite, Gift of Mr. Jay Johnson, N0036.1986

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