Sleighs were used for both chores and revelry before autos made them obsolete 

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

A photographer recorded this scene at the Foundry Road intersection with the Western Turnpike opposite Willow Street where, after a heavy snowfall, horses and sleighs still owned the road and the early automobile was stranded, embedded in a snowbank. 

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Ice blocks have been cut from Tygert’s Pond not far from Osborn Corners and loaded on sledges. They will be hauled to ice houses to be stored for later use. Note the horses were blanketed when standing in the cold while the ice was being cut and loaded.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

In front of the Hilton farmhouse, these children sit on what appears to be a bobsleigh with its two sets of runners.

Swirling flakes of a November snowstorm once signaled the beginning of sleighing season, bringing joy to people of all ages. A century or more ago people looked forward to a snowfall of several inches when travel by sleigh would be smooth and quick and farmers could use sledges to easily haul heavy loads such as logs or blocks of ice.

Sleighs came in many sizes. Cutters were designed for one or two people, while larger bob sleighs or “heavy” sleighs could accommodate additional passengers. An 1895 Altamont Carriage Works advertisement in The Enterprise offered a line of Portland Cutters, Pleasure and Heavy Bob Sleighs.

Sleighs could even be ordered from a Sears Catalog. In 1902, the Sears catalog offered Portland Cutters priced at $16.95, $19.90, and $22.50 while a luxurious Russian Bob Sleigh was $46.90.

In addition to individual ownership of a sleigh, livery stable owners had on hand one or more designed to carry many passengers. Huybertie Pruyn, a wealthy young Albany girl, who in her memoirs written in later life, described riding on a sleigh that hauled as many as 20 young people from Albany on the Western Turnpike to Sloan’s Hotel in Guilderland by having the passengers seated along both sides facing each other.

In addition to passenger sleighs, there were work sledges for hauling heavy loads by farmers and other businessmen. Stephen Lainhart, a farmer living on his ancestral farm near Altamont, often made references to sleighs in his diaries covering the years from 1859 until the time of his death in 1923.

The anonymous authors of Enterprise columns covering the various parts of town from 1884 until the 1930s give frequent references to sleighs or sleighing weather until automobiles and plowed roadways ended what had been standard winter transportation.

We look back upon riding in a horse-drawn sleigh as romantic, but in their day, they were considered strictly utilitarian, necessary to get around on business or errands or to church and various social events on snow-covered roads.

Sleighs had to be brought out of storage when the snow began falling; in spring, they were washed and stored away. An early winter visit to the blacksmith or farrier was necessary for your horse or team because studs were needed on horseshoes to get through the snow.

Theft, a downside

Gliding over the snow, especially on a crisp, moonlit night with sleigh bells jingling was exhilarating. However, sleigh ownership brought some downsides. Sleighs and horses left unattended in a hotel shed could easily be stolen as one man discovered when his horse and sleigh disappeared from the Dunnsville Hotel shed while he was inside. Fortunately, the thief apparently just needed a ride as the horse and sleigh turned up in Altamont a short time later with the thief long gone.

Isaac Van Patten was a local youth who paid an intoxicated visit to Schenectady where he absconded with a horse and sleigh from one hotel shed, cruised the city for a time, stopped at another hotel, traded the first horse and sleigh for another, eventually making his way back to his father’s home in Fullers Station where he hid the sleigh and put the horse in a stall.

He was in bed sleeping it off when the city police arrived and, finding the evidence, charged him with grand larceny. A good lawyer got the charge dropped to intoxication and he got off with a $10 fine. These incidents were rare, but did happen from time to time.


Sleighs were pulled by one or more horses, hard-working and long-suffering animals, which on occasion, having great sensitivity to unusual sounds or motions, suddenly became uncontrollable runaways, much to the regret of any passengers who happened to be in the sleigh at that moment.

The “cars” or trains was one of the most common causes of runaways, giving a fright to a skittish horse, which took off from in front of Mynderse’s store in Altamont. The young lad waiting in the sleigh was dumped out as the horse fled down Church Street (now Maple Avenue), where the horse and sleigh ended up in someone’s yard.

In this case there was no injury or damage, unlike an incident in Guilderland Center. This occurred when a rather loud group was returning from a lively social gathering in the village. Apparently spooked by the jolly noise of the sleigh’s occupants, the horse took off.

As it ran out of control, one woman panicked and, leaping out of the careening sleigh, landed on her head, remained unconscious for hours and was still “prostrate” at the time of the column writing. In the meantime, the onrushing sleigh tipped over, flinging out the other passengers who were uninjured. But by then the empty sleigh had collided with a hitching post, separating the box and rear bob from the terrified horse and front bob. Both were discovered the next morning in Voorheesville.

Although there never seemed to be a fatality, there were the occasional person “quite seriously injured” as a Guilderland man was when tipped out of his cutter. Or having a very close call as John Blessing did when crossing the West Shore tracks in a heavy snowstorm; he and his horse were just clear of an oncoming locomotive as it demolished his sleigh but left Blessing and his horse unharmed.

Another runaway scenario that almost seems like an episode in an early silent movie occurred on Altamont’s Main Street in 1920 when village Doctor Cullen and Arthur Dorsett were gliding quietly down Main Street in a cutter.

Meanwhile, a team of horses that had been hitched to a heavy sleigh at the depot broke free, and thundering wildly down Main Street were about to overrun Dr. Cullen and Mr. Dorsett in their cutter.

Thinking fast, Dr. Cullen turned, and leaning out the rear of the cutter, he hoped to deter the pursuing team by striking them about their heads and faces with his hat while Mr. Dorsett was attempting to keep ahead of them. Fortunately, the men found a place to pull off as the runaway team raced by, finally floundering in a deep snowbank.

Most sleigh rides were quiet affairs and it was only a small number that ran out of control.

Road problems

It was certainly convenient to do errands or chores, go to church, carry on business, or pay visits by sleigh, but the roads weren’t always snow-covered throughout the winter due to thaws or sometimes a lack of snow.

And then sometimes there could be too much snow, especially if blizzard conditions had piled up high snow drifts across roads. Then farmers had to get out with shovels and clear a way through the drifts on the road in front of their farm to allow the horses and sleighs to get through.

Stephen Lainhart’s diaries mention having to shovel to open the road past his home after heavy drifting had taken place on many occasions. If his diaries are any indication, there was certainly much more snow and lower temperatures in those days.

At least once when temperatures were extremely low, he took his son in the sleigh back and forth to the Dunnsville District No. 2 School down the hill on Dunnsville Road near the Turnpike, a goodly distance from his home.

Chores and ‘jolly times’

Sleighs or sledges were used by farmers for various chores such as taking produce to market or, if they had surplus hay to sell, taking it to the nearest depot where a dealer in hay would buy it for shipment to a nearby city.

Ice houses had to be filled and the huge blocks of ice were hauled from ponds where it was cut to ice houses to be stored. Trees taken down in the wood lot were brought closer to the house to be cut into firewood or moved to a sawmill to be cut into lumber. Certain heavy chores were deliberately left until winter.

Although there was a rare tale of a sleigh theft or the occasional story of a sleighing accident, the endless mentions of sleighs in The Enterprise are almost always about transportation to church-related services or activities and social events and visits to friends and family.

For most people, a sleigh ride to a social event was greatly anticipated and highly enjoyed. Groups would pay a surprise visit to someone who always seemed to have plenty of refreshments for the crowd of visitors who always seemed to have had “a jolly time” or “an enjoyable evening” when reported in the next week’s Enterprise.

One description from the hamlet of Guilderland said, “A sleigh ride party of about 20 of the elder people of this place were pleasantly entertained at the home of Mr. & Mrs. H.S. Kapp of McKownville last Friday evening. The occasion was a complete surprise to Mr. & Mrs. Kapp.”

Other evening destinations included revival meetings and donation parties for ministers or someone in need.

Local hotel keepers benefited from good sleighing weather and were busy with city parties who enjoyed a sleigh ride out to a country place such as Sloan’s for an evening of dinner and dancing before heading back to the city many hours later. Sloan’s was the most well-known, and an 1891 note in The Enterprise mentioned “the good sleighing weather brings quite a good many parties from Albany to Sloan’s.”

The Fullers columnist once observed seven sleigh loads from Schenectady had passed through on their way to Sloan’s. In her memoirs, Hubertie Pruyn told how she and her wealthy Albany friends enjoyed trips to that “old Fashioned tavern” with return to Albany in the wee hours.

Another destination was the Altamont Hotel and, in Guilderland Center, Borst’s Hotel drew out-of-towners including the Bellevue (Schenectady) Euchre Players Club who challenged the Guilderland Center Euchre Club for an evening of dinner and card-playing.

Special sleigh rides were great treats for children. It would be difficult to top the sleigh ride provided by Jesse Parker when he transported the teacher and pupils attending District No. 14 School (Bigsbee at Fort Hunter) to the Van Curler Theatre to see “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Another lucky group were the 26 McKownville young people who were taken in two sleighs to the Methodist parsonage in Guilderland where they were royally entertained.

Mentions of young people from Settles Hill, Altamont, Dunnsville, McKownville, Guilderland Center, and Guilderland being taken on sleigh rides show up at various times and usually ended up at a destination for refreshments and sometimes games. The special rides for children continued into the 1930s.

And a few Guilderland residents took their last sleigh ride in M.F. Hellenbeck’s sleigh hearse to one of the local cemeteries’ receiving vaults to await spring burial.

The automobile made the sleigh into an antiquarian object of curiosity. The time of their necessity and usefulness was over and, except for a special occasion, were abandoned in barns and wagon sheds. An era had passed.