LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — When I was growing up there in the head of Blair Branch, no loose plank, stray board or old mop handle was safe this time of year because every boy on the holler needed to be building a new and better snow sled than the one he had last year.
Many a time, when Dee Smith had his sawmill going there beside Rockhouse Creek at the mouth of Spring Branch, I’d stop and go through the scrap pile, coming home from the Jeremiah Post Office. Sometimes I’d find a 1 by 2 piece of white oak, beech or hickory that would make perfect sled runners. So it was not unusual to see me walking house to house with my sack of Grit newspapers on one shoulder and a sled runner board on the other.
I’d accumulate as many as two or three dozen good boards through the warm weather months when Dee was running the mill full blast. I would stash them in our barn loft to dry out and harden up. I kept the two best ones for myself and swapped the others to Truman Caudill, Truman Blair and France Adams for bbs, marbles, .22 shells and anything else they had to trade. Truman Caudill once gave me a pair of banty chickens for two sled runners and Truman Blair once traded me a very nice slingshot with genuine red rubbers for a sled I’d started on but couldn’t find enough soft wood lumber to finish.
In those days the mines used Hercules and Austin Powder Company dynamite that came in wooden boxes. The tops and bottoms of these powder boxes were hammered on with very small, brass nails The wood in the tops and bottoms was so thin it was useless, but the sides and the nails had unlimited utility in constructing a good light snow sled, if you knew how to properly reinforce it. But my mom thought that dismantling a powder box for sled construction was a terrible waste because they made excellent hens’ nests and they had almost unlimited utility for storage purposes.
If there was no powder box to be found, our old farm was covered up with paling fences, made of narrow slats that had been split from chestnut or white oak logs. Dad, like most other people, was switching over to wire. Palings were plentiful but very heavy compared to powder boxes or well-cured poplar or pine boards if you could find any that weren’t nailed down too tight.
I could usually talk either Uncle Willie Adams or Uncle Stevie Craft into whittling my sled runners so that the front ends were nicely curved upwards and the bottoms gently rounded off.
Aunt Lona Adams smoked Prince Albert tobacco that came in sturdy tin cans.
It was tedious work but you could make the can seams loosen and then fit ‘em on the bottoms of your sled runners and the finished product would almost fly once you got it broken in.
Of course, the main reason for building sleds in the first place was to go belly busting down the sides of hills any time we had a snowfall. And anytime somebody tells me they don’t believe in global warming, I point out to them that it sure as heck snowed a lot more in the 50’s and 60’s than it does this day and time.
Sleds also came in very handy for evening chores. I could usually haul three buckets of coal or four or five arm loads of wood on the sled and that saved a lot of walking and heavy lifting. It also made doing the chores fun instead of dreaded.
Okay, I know you’ve been dying to know what a mop handle was used for in sled construction. So I’m guessing you’ve never ridden a wooden sled down a snow-covered hill because you grew up in a family that could afford to spring for you a fancy, brought-on, Western Flyer sleigh. I used mop handles across the front of my sleds so that they stuck out on both sides and I had something to hang onto when I went belly busting down the hill.