Sleds, skates, and skis provided chills, spills, and thrills

The snowier, colder winters of long ago attracted multitudes of people outdoors, especially the young,   to enjoy the brisk weather and take advantage of the town’s snow-covered hills and icy ponds. Hopping on a sled to coast downhill was the most common sport, but as the years went by, ice-skating and then skiing took on popularity as well.

An 1893 Enterprise advice column suggesting children’s activities bluntly stated, “For outdoor sport, nothing surpasses coasting in the estimation of young people.” As soon as adequate snow fell, “coasting is in season” or similar comments would appear in the paper.

Sleds were inexpensive, lasting from one year to the next and often were passed on to siblings. The earliest and cheapest sleds were all wood, often ornately painted, with wooden runners.

After a few years, sleds like the popular “Flexible Flyers” were improved models, running on straight steel runners with a moveable cross piece on front connected to the runner, allowing sledders more control by letting them steer to swerve left or right.

Early references to coasting were often sexist, being chiefly directed toward boys. An 1885 poem on The Enterprise front page was typical: 

                             “See the boy

                               Full of joy

                               With his painted sled

                                Gaily go

                                Through the snow … ”

Girls were probably left out because of the cumbersome clothes they wore, and riding on a sled would have been considered unladylike in that era. However, country girls, determined not to miss out on the fun, asserted themselves early.

In 1887, “Uncle Able” Spawn took a number of Guilderland Center boys and girls over to the Hollow “where they enjoyed riding downhill for some three hours. No one was hurt, a few fell off their sleds, some broke their sleighs, but all voted Abe a jolly good fellow.”

While girls did go coasting in the late 19th Century, advertising was usually directed at boys or their parents. Jos. Snyder, an Altamont merchant, in a 1910  pre-Christmas ad reminded parents, “You remember the fun you used to have with a sled. Make your boy happy! Buy him one!”

As late as 1927, the Sears Catalogue had printed in bold type, “Boys! Read This” as it touted its “Flying Arrow” steering sleds. “Flying Arrow Sleds are popular with boys everywhere,” it said.

Coasting was great fun and a fast downhill run exhilarating, but it could also be a dangerous sport. Tales of mishaps and injuries appeared with regularity in Enterprise columns.

“Be careful boys and girls and don’t get hurt,” was the comment in an 1885 note that the Knowersville boys were enjoying themselves coasting on the big hill.

Over the years, one unfortunate boy suffered a severe facial wound when he collided with a fence while another severely gashed his hand after falling off his sled. The list goes on and on: sprained ankles, broken wrist, internal injuries, injured by being run into by another sled, etc.

Children were not the only victims. Young adults took to the hills and their injuries tended to be more severe.

In 1903, Dunnsville’s one-room school pupils were probably delighted to have an unexpected week’s vacation when their teacher, Miss Nettie Ogsbury, was injured in a coasting accident (no details given). More seriously, in 1915, a young Altamont man broke his leg while steering a bobsled loaded with several passengers, crashing into a hydrant at the corner of Prospect Street and Helderberg Avenue while trying to avoid a pedestrian. His passengers were uninjured in the crash, but he spent weeks in St Peter’s Hospital before returning to work on crutches a month later.

But the coasting accident that received the most detailed coverage was the 1917 crash that occurred while a sled round a curve on the State Road. It was none other than Prof. Fancher, the Altamont High School Principal, who suffered a compound fracture of his leg when his sled upset.

The young lady with him on the sled “escaped with minor bruises.” Her name was also given in the article and the story certainly must have given everyone something to talk about! After a few weeks in the hospital, Prof. Fancher returned to the high school on crutches a month later.

Young people on sleds could not only be a danger to themselves, but to pedestrians as well. One elderly Altamont gentleman was knocked off his feet in the midst of the village and was unconscious for several hours.

In 1893, the village passed an ordinance forbidding coasting on village streets, much to the anger of the village boys. It’s unknown whether the ordinance was rescinded or simply no longer enforced because after a time people were certainly coasting there in the 20th Century.

Not as common as sleds or as inexpensive, some toboggans were also used on hills around town. In 1886, in the hamlet of Guilderland, “tobogganing is all the rage now both for young and old,” the paper reported. A family gathering of upwards of 30 people there featured tobogganing by young and old.

Two Altamont fellows tobogganed down a slide that had been set up in Mr. Severson’s pasture, coming down at a good rate. At the bottom, as they went into the open field, one young man attempted to either guide it or to slow it down by touching his feet at the side.

“The result was most disastrous and a more confused mass would be hard to find. Barring a few scratches the boys come out all right, but the toboggan was a complete wreck.” Because a straight open run was needed, there was much less use of toboggans than of sleds.


“A skating craze struck town”

Skating was a winter activity bringing people outdoors, either to skate or watch the action. It was also an activity that older people could still enjoy when they were past the age of going downhill on a sled.

Although only occasionally mentioned in the 1880s, as the decades went by, skating seemed to become more common and increasingly popular.

The serious business of ice-harvesting put some water bodies such as Tygert’s Pond off limits to skaters, but others provided great spots for the sport. By 1891, it was pointed out that, “a skating craze struck town.”

The McKownville correspondent mentioned skating on the “Park Lake,” location unknown, while in Guilderland, Batterman’s Pond was another skating favorite, though ice-harvesting was done at times there as well. There were spots along the Normanskill and Black Creek for skaters in other parts of town.

In 1894, Altamont resident A.L. Sitterly created his own pond northeast of the village for the purpose of harvesting ice. Needless to say, the boys were already eyeing it as a skating pond.

In 1896, it was noted that there was “skating on Sitterly’s Pond.” A.L. Sitterly inserted an announcement in The Enterprise’s next issue that stated, “Notice is hereby given that no skating will be allowed on my pond.”

In the end, it was worked out that for a rental fee he would allow skating there. The pond was described in later years as “conveniently located, absolutely safe and large enough to accommodate a good-sized crowd.” Generous citizens chipped in to raise the money for rent; skaters could freely use the pond and Mr. Sitterly smiled all the way to the bank.

Skating parties provided great socializing opportunities for the town’s teens and young adults. One 1893 skating party on the Normanskill not far from Sharps Corners included a crowd from Old State Road, Dunnsville, Fullers, and Schenectady.

With some older folks as onlookers, “the ice was great and everybody enjoyed themselves.” Frequent mentions are made in Enterprise columns from various parts of town: “The young people are enjoying themselves skating” or, “Skating continues to be the pastime of the hour.” Already in 1886, the Guilderland columnist noted, “Almost everyone has skates.”

Skating had its dangers and printed on the front pages of The Enterprise over the years were many page-one stories of tragic drownings in other areas. At least into the 1920s, this had not seemed to have happened here.

However, it was mentioned that there had been several “immersions” in Batterman’s pond. While in Guilderland Center, Arthur Blessing took a ribbing in the local column about his “impromptu bath” after breaking through the ice on Black Creek. Described as looking like “a drowned rat” as he emerged from the water, Blessing was “none the worse for his mishap.”

However, one boy in Guilderland was described as seriously injured after going through the ice at Batterman’s Pond, no details given.

Ice hockey had also been introduced. In 1913, it was reported, “Hockey promises to be an interesting pastime for the winter months” on Batterman’s Pond.

As early as 1905, there were Enterprise ads for hockey skates, yet youngsters playing hockey was almost never mentioned in local columns. However, the tale of the Altamont lad who fell backwards playing hockey and hit his head tells us they were playing informally. There were fears that he had a concussion, the doctor was called, but he was recovering at press time.

Actually once, there was a feeling of relief when a thaw set in. The village doctor had had to deal with three winter sports accidents in the previous week!

Skiing grows in popularity

Another winter sport that became popular as the 20th Century progressed was skiing. Young people were skiing on local hills, although there aren’t many mentions in the local columns. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops encouraged skiing and, by the 1930s, there were several mentions of the sport in the paper.

The Delaware & Hudson Railroad got into the act in the 1890s by promoting the Quebec Winter Carnival where even out-of-town visitors could use the toboggan slide. For fans who wanted to experience real winter sports, those people could purchase a round-trip ticket to Quebec for the price of a normal one-way ticket.

Once automobile traffic increased on Guilderland’s roadways, almost all farming ceased, leaving pastures and fields overgrown. As development covered many parts of town, it became almost impossible to enjoy the same winter sports that had been freely available to earlier residents.

Fortunately in Tawasentha Park we now have the winter sports area for sledding while at Western Turnpike Golf Course cross-country skiing is available, making it possible to enjoy the snow when we have it.