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19th Century horse-drawn sleighs celebrated in Ashland
Park your Prius. Pick up the reins. There’s more than one way to get around in the new millennium for the Northwoods Harness Club. Danielle Kaeding reports from Ashland.
Every January, the Northwoods Harness Club shows up with bells on – literally.
The group gathers for its annual sleigh and cutter rally just west of Ashland. Their goal: to take people on a trip back in time.
“We try to recreate the 1800s.”
That’s Charlie Singler, rally coordinator. He organizes the 30 or so sleigh drivers that slide into town each year on just about every type of sleigh - pulled along by just about every type of horse (horse sound) from Clydesdales to miniatures.
Singler says you can hear them coming a mile away.
“We all have bells that we put on our horses and bells are individual by person. Back in the 1800s when someone was coming to visit you, you could tell who it was by the sound of the bells because they all sound a little different.”
And for good reason. Exposed to the elements, sleigh drivers wore layers of clothing that could prevent hearing or seeing others on the trail. Bells improved safety and that’s the number one concern of the club. After that, it’s all about having a good time and bringing the past alive.
Bobbie Kleffman and her donkey Jack made the trek from Grand Rapids, Minn., with an old stoneboat sleigh.
“It’s something that farmers and lumberjacks might have used. If they were out in the field in the summertime, they would put rocks on there. That’s why it’s called a stoneboat – to take them out of the pasture.”
Candy Hankins never misses a rally. The Cable resident is an original member of the Northwoods Harness Club. She dons the clothing of the day, bundled in a fur hat, a woolen black cape and a sash reminiscent of 18th century carrying belts worn by the Iroquois.
“This is something that Canadian sleigh drivers would use. They would take great pains in making a beautiful assumption sash and wear it all the time.”
The costumes, the horses and the history are all part of the experience. Sleigh and horse owner Robert Stalvig recalls his family always had draft horses on their dairy farm south of Superior.
“We’d use them for a lot of field work, especially in the spring of the year. Plowing, discing…everything’s got to be done so much faster now.”
But, the progress of the past 100 years is far from the minds of the sleigh and cutter crowd. The rally reunites them in their shared love of this bygone era. Rallies like this one are underrated for Hayward spectator Kathy Hnath.
“You can go to a lot of museums and you can see sleighs – fancy sleighs and cutters and all this type of thing. And you can go to antique places and see the fur coats and costuming and whatever. And you can go to fairs and whatever and see nice horses and all that. But, here, it’s all packed together. It’s in a bundle.”
For Hankins, it’s just a good way to spend an afternoon with friends, and they’ll keep coming back every year.
“That’s what we do. We just love to drive our horses around.”
(Danielle Kaeding is a former WPR reporter and now manages WRNC-FM at Northland College in Ashland)
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