It was the week following Thanksgiving, and it had snowed 6 inches, enough for sledding on the hill behind Chain O’ Lake School. I dragged my old sled from the storage place above the woodshed, ran some sandpaper along the rusty runners, and headed for school. I knew that during first recess we’d all be out on the hill, those of us with cheap hardware store sleds, and Mildred with her Flexible Flyer.
Flexible Flyers were the Cadillac of sleds. We all wanted a Flexible Flyer but knew we’d probably never get one. Sometimes when Mildred was in a good mood, she would let one of us ride down the hill with her, to get a feel for high-quality sledding on the back of her beautiful sled. What a thrill it was to ride on such a marvelous machine, to feel the wind rushing by, to hear the runners crunching on the hard packed snow, to see the look of awe on the faces of your fellow schoolmates when you flew by. Then, as you approached the bottom of the hill, you felt this precision machine turn in a wide arc in one direction and then in the other. No other sled came close to riding as well as a Flexible Flyer, or so we believed. If the truth is known, there wasn’t a wit of difference between the ride on a cheap hardware store sled or a Flexible Flyer.
It was clear, though, that the Flexible Flyer was better constructed and flashier to look at. The owners of Flexible Flyer sleds also made sure we all knew the kind of sled they owned. That was undoubtedly one of the essential qualities of a Flexible Flyer. It gave a kid bragging rights.
My sled was more like a Model A Ford. It was tough. It was dependable. And it could be used for more than sliding on the hill back of the Chain O’ Lake School. At different times we used my sled for hauling wood from the woodpile to the house. On occasion, when the snow was too much for Pa’s milk can wheelbarrow, the milk cans rode on my sled from the barn to the pump house where the cooling tank was located. But mostly my “plain and ordinary” sled accompanied me to our one-room school every day during the long winter season and provided enjoyment for many recess periods. The sled also made the walk to school a bit easier, mainly when our country road was snow covered, which was most of the winter. Miller’s hill was the last quarter mile to school and if conditions were right, we could ride nearly up to the schoolhouse door.
Sledding has been popular since colonial days, when children slid down hills with wooden sleds. The best wooden sleds had wooden runners to which a strip of metal had been attached to make the sled move faster. But these sleds couldn’t be steered, not much anyway. The rider went where the sled went, through berry patches and into trees.
The Flexible Flyer was the first sled that could be steered. Samuel Leeds Allen, a farm equipment manufacturer in the late 1800s, discovered that he needed a product that could be made in summer and sold in winter to keep his employees working when the machinery manufacturing business was slow. In 1889 he designed the Flexible Flyer sled. Allen tried various sled designs. Eventually, he replaced wooden runners with flexible steel ones. By attaching a movable crossbar, the sled became steerable. He named his creation, Flexible Flyer and added the now famous arrow and eagle design to the slatted wooden seat so everyone could recognize his creation.
Like so many new ideas, department stores and other retailers were reluctant to stock this newfangled sled. It took nearly five years before it caught on. But with increased interest in winter sports, Flexible Flyer sales increased dramatically. Allen’s new sled soon sold more than all the other sled manufacturers combined.
The Flexible Flyers sled is still a prestigious sled. It has maintained its reputation over the years and is a reminder of not only the fun of sliding downhill but how, no matter what kids had, they longed for the Cadillac of sleds. I never owned one. Pa said I should be happy with what I had. I mostly was.
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