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Thursday, February 7, 2019

Old Fashioned Winter Fun

FOR A BETTER RUN. In the late 19th century, the toboggan was introduced as a safer alternative to the "murderous double runner" or traverse.  Local toboggan clubs were started and toboggan chutes were center to winter carnivals.
BURLINGTON WINTER CARNIVAL. Beginning in 1884, the Burlington Coasting Club began to hold a Winter Carnival modeled after carnivals held in Montreal. Thousands attended.   

NO COASTING ALLOWED. As early as 1869, coasting on public roads was being prohibited across the two states.  The United Opinion supported this measure, writing "Sliding I the street is dangerous to both boys who slide and the people who walk or ride." .

The steerable Flexible Flyer was introduced in 1889. Ads said that their use meant that runs lasted longer, went fasters and damaged boys' shoes less.

This group of free-range youngers get ready for the down hill adventure that was sledding (Library of Congress) 
“This winter is one of the old-fashioned kind, with plenty of cold and snow. The snow has furnished an infinite amount of amusements.  Not for a long time has there been such a carnival of fun. This is the season of enjoyment, therefore we say welcome to the snow which is the only thing that can make old winter endurable”  Burlington Weekly Free Press, Jan. 24, 1879

As I write this column, snow is falling heavily in Bradford. It seems an appropriate time to delve into the history of winter fun in New Hampshire and Vermont, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Because they  are model designer states for winter activities, this article will review the history of some of the many activities that have engaged residents in winter-time fun.

As there is so much information on the history of hockey and skiing in New Hampshire and Vermont, the history of those activities will have to wait until a future column.   

 The traverse sled is one of several winter toys that began as a working device. For centuries, they were used to haul supplies, lumber and stone, drawn by human or animal power. In the 1870s, Vermont newspapers began to describe them being used for downhill adventures.

Known as “double-rippers or double runners,” the  traverse was two sleds connected by a plank. The front sled could be manipulated to steer. The number of riders depended on the length of the plank, with reports of sleds that accommodated up to 20 riders.

A horse, truck or tractor was often used to pull the sled up a steep and long hill or road. Roy Belyea of Piermont recalls growing up in Warren and riding an 8-person traverse down both Moosilauke Inn Road and Rt. 118.

Hauled by a truck up the road, the sled ride would be as much as five miles. The truck would go ahead to warn the occasional oncoming traffic and the ride would often end up in a snowbank. Goshen Road in Bradford and Piermont Heights were two of the many appealing traverse runs in the area. 

Those trips were exciting and dangerous. Reports from across the two states described broken bones, gorged torsos and even fatalities. Many of the reports mirrored a 1885 comment in a St. Johnsbury newspaper: “Thin ice and a traverse sleds are the boys’ greatest danger now.”   

The toboggan was another tool that was modified for winter excitement.  It was first mentioned in Vermont newspapers in 1870. In 1884, The Vermont Watchman encouraged towns and villages to “banish the murderous double-runner…and introduce the Indian toboggan, a vehicle swift as an arrow’s flight, but yielding a harmless sport, indescribably fascinating and exhilarating.”

In 1887, the Star and Burlington brand toboggans “were in high use in St. Johnsbury.” Toboggan clubs were formed in Burlington, Montpelier and St. Johnsbury and toboggan suits were manufactured in Saxton’s River, Vermont.  

Bobsledding was described as the “winter sport that has an element of danger.” The term bobsled was first used for the farm sled used to haul lumber or hay. In the later 19th century  it was also used in reference to the regular traverse. In the 1880s, riders in both Switzerland and upstate New York, added a steering wheel to the traverse. By 1909, bobsled races were being held over an iced course.   

Decades before these toboggans, youngsters had been sliding or coasting down local hills and roads. Bradford’s National Opinion of Feb. 13, 1874 reported on “the downhill tendency of American youth.” It went to report that a single company in Montpelier sold 11,000 sleds for children last winter.

Early sleds were advertised as high sleds or mollycoddles for girls and low sleds for boys. All that was improved when, in 1889, Samuel Leeds Allen patented the first steerable runner sled. Sold as the Flexible Flyer, a 1904 ad declared that it would “last longer, go faster and save boys’ shoes.”

Dragging sleds behind, youngsters sometimes tackled a hill of new fallen snow. A heavy woolen snowsuit or jeans and buckled overshoes, hat and mittens were their costumes. They were as free range as the family dogs that tagged along. If the boots leaked, one could always pull a bread bag over them. Steering could be done by hand, belly-down or sitting up and using feet.  It was said that girls used the latter whereas boys were more likely to start with a running “belly bumper.”

The first couple of attempts were short-lived until a path was packed down. Walking back up hill in the path was frowned upon. If a hill was icy, cardboard or an inner tube could replace the sled. I recall that the hill outside the Orfordville school was just right for these substitutes. 

The jack jumper or snow bob added an exciting toy. Patented in 1904 by  Peter Perrault of Brattleboro, the jumper was sold in stores. One could also be made at home with a barrel stave or sawed-off ski as the runner.  An upright piece held the attached seat. Using one’s flailing feet and arms for balance , the jumper sends the courageous rider sailing down a snow-covered hill.    

Diners at a recent East Orange Senior Center luncheon confirmed these coasting details. Long before the flying saucer was marketed, one person recalled a group ride using an auto hood. 

Bradford’s Forrest Thurston remembered starting at the top of South Road and sliding more than a mile past the district school he attended. During recess or lunch, students at that school used the road for sliding.

This 87-year old diner said that there was little traffic and the roads were rarely sanded after snow. But there was traffic and other dangers on roads used by throngs of children and some “frisky older people.”

Beginning in the 1860s, newspaper reports regularly reported accidents between coasters and pedestrians, horses, utility poles, barbed wire, railroad cars, and vehicles. 

While some communities set aside designated streets for sliding, others began to restrict it. In Dec. 1869, believing “the practice of coasting upon the Highways of Bradford Village is alike dangerous to live and property,” Bradford selectmen moved to forbid it.

In 1877, a new Vermont law allowed town selectmen to prohibit sliding on all town roadways. The United Opinion supported the measure, writing  “Sliding in the street is dangerous to both the boys who slide and the people who walk or ride.”   In 1883, New Hampshire passed a similar law, but also allowed communities to appropriate funds for “controlled suitable sliding, coasting and skating.”

 Beginning that same year, many northern New Englanders travelled to Montreal and Quebec City for  winter carnivals. Railroads offered special excursion tickets for the events. The spectators from New Hampshire and Vermont  were so taken by the activities that  communities and colleges began to organize their own winter carnivals. 

In 1884, Burlington’s Coasting Club held a five-day gathering in which coasting and tobogganing were the main events.  Its 250 members created a chute 30 ft in height and 1,400 ft in sliding length. Two years later, the enlarged event included skating, curling, coasting, ice-boating, trotting races on Lake Champlain, sleighing, snowshoe races and hockey matches. The hockey matches involving both local and Canadian teams is described as the first international hockey  tournament.  

Winter carnivals were also held in New Hampshire. In Jan. 1893, a winter carnival was held in Concord   and, in 1916, Newport began a winter carnival that is still being held today. In 1921, the New Hampshire Hotel Association encouraged local winter festivals to promote tourism.   

In 1910, the Dartmouth Outing Club held its first winter carnival.  Over the years, skiing events  and other outdoor sports of all types along with snow sculptures were added. From  the beginning this all-male student body realized “Winter Carnival will not succeed without girls.”  More on this carnival and Dartmouth’s contributions to skiing in a later column.

Other colleges also held similar events. In 1920, Middlebury began the tradition of “Winter Holiday.” That college indicates their festival is “the oldest student-run winter carnival in the nation.”  In 1921, the University of Vermont held winter events that included both college and high school students. The next year, the University of New Hampshire’s Forest Club held that school’s first winter carnival.  

In 1920, Washington’s Birthday became the focus of a mid-winter carnival  in Stowe. The organizers “wanted to bring the people in town out of economic and winter doldrums.” It was very successful and, in the mid-1930s, drew large crowds. Suspended during WW II, it did not resume until 1974.

Local high schools were attracted to the thrills of a winter carnival. In the 1930s, Bradford Academy held an annual  interscholastic Saturday carnival that included students from Hanover, Lebanon, Orford and Woodsville. This would evolve into indoor and outdoor contests between BA students held on the last day of school prior to winter vacation topped by a dance with student royalty.

At the same time, a number of winter competitions were held in Orford involving both high school and junior high students.  In 1932, Lake Morey was the site of sporting events for 7th  and 8th graders.  An area-wide competition was held in 1937  and included students from Haverhill, Thetford, Bradford, Newbury and Orford.  In the late 1950’s, many of events were held in the field adjacent to the high school.

Ice skating was introduced in America in the 1740s by British soldiers. Early skates were attached to the wearer’s shoes or boots. Between 1848 and 1865 improvements included one-piece skates. Skating became very popular as it was the only sporting activity that included both men and women. It was not unusual for a skating party and a bonfire to follow a day of ice harvesting.  

According to Katharine Blaisdell’s history of Haverhill, beginning in the 1890s, there was skating on the Ammonoosuc River near Woodsville,  on Sleeper’s mill pond in North Haverhill and the eddy of the Connecticut River at Haverhill Corner.

 Over the years, there have been a number of skating rinks throughout Haverhill, both on established rinks and ones created by users shoveling a clear surface. As elsewhere, these rinks were used for hockey and individual skating. 

On Christmas morning, 1895, a skating outing was held on Lake Fairlee and “much fancy skating was indulged in.” The next year, Warden’s Store in Bradford sold “skates for 30 cents and up.” 

Skaters on rivers and ponds were joined by those involved in ice fishing. Newspaper reports indicated that in the late 1890s, concerns for overfishing during the winter began to lead to restrictions. In 1894,  ice fishing in both Lake Fairlee and Lake Morey was prohibited.

 Concern for the pickerel population led the New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission to recommend that all ice fishing be stopped in all but the largest lakes. Their concern was the negative impact on fishing during other seasons.  

However, in the new century, catches seem to increase.  In January 1911, it was reported  that, in one day, two Bradford men caught 30 pickerel in Haverhill. In 1922, ice fishing on Lake Fairlee resulted “in exceptionally good luck.”

In addition to the above activities, sending a group of children out on a snowy day led to numerous informal winter activities. Building a snow fort and having a snowball fight along with molding a snowman could fill as many hours as the temperatures and appetites allowed.

 An untouched field of new fallen snow was just right for creating a game of fox and geese.  That winter game of tag  was played on a large circle, divided like a pie with connecting paths.  A snow pile created just the right setting for a King of the Hill challenge.

In 1922, The Brattleboro Daily Reformer concluded: “Vermont is beginning to realize on its permanent interest in winter.  We have been paying for winter, lo, these may years, but have never realized on the investment in the share of health and pleasure. Now we are cashing in some of our dividends.” For over a century and a half, many New Hampshire and Vermont residents have and continue to enjoy the dividends of living through old-fashioned winters with old-fashioned fun.