True Tales from Canton’s Past: The Sleighing is Capital

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Charles Sumner lived at 179 Chapman Street and is shown standing beside his sleigh in 1914. (Collection of the Canton Historical Society)

Charles Sumner lived at 179 Chapman Street and is shown standing beside his sleigh in 1914. (Collection of the Canton Historical Society)

As the moon rose over Canton on a cold January night in 1887, the distant sounds of laughter echoed across Forge Pond. It was a night for sleighing and late into the night the ritual was in the last throes of enjoyment. There is, of course, the refrain in Jingle Bells that calls the best imagery to mind: “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, O’er the hills we go, Laughing all the way. Bells on bob tail ring, making spirits bright, oh what sport to ride and sing, a sleighing song tonight!”

Written in 1857, Jingle Bells was originally published as “One Horse Open Sleigh” by James Lord Pierpont — and the song captures a lost recreation of New England in which horses and livestock served a central role in everyday life. The lyrics conjure in our imaginations what was once an everyday sight when snow turned the hills and woodlands white: horsemen changed out their wheeled sulkies for sleds, and horse-drawn sleighs governed the roads.

And what fun it was indeed. A Canton newspaper account of the day observed that, “Sleighing has been better during this past week than has been known for several years, and it has been improved these clear, cold, sunshiny days and moonlight nights by the owners of swift-gaited horses in single and double teams, who have made Washington Street lively between the post office and Cobb’s Tavern, Sharon.”

The splendor of the cold nights and sleighs filled with women and children gleefully sliding through the night air was magical. Deep under heavy blankets and furs, the fun held out as long as the horses had the stamina and urging. At the time, sleighing parties were organized and groups of people moved from town to town to join in the winter festivities. Larger teams of four horses pulling great sleighs would visit as far away as Holbrook and Randolph. And by day, children and their teachers would have sleighing parties throughout town.

The weather that year of “great sleighing” was fairly dreadful by today’s standards. “On Wednesday morning, our thermometer at 6:30 stood at 12 degrees below zero. Major Silloway had it at 15 below at Canton Junction. Thos. Tapper, the florist, reports it at 18 below at his office.” And while it was frigid for humans, the local paper reported that the “English sparrows had evidently miscalculated their ability to withstand the New England winter, for their festive chirpings which we noticed in the pine groves last week have become faint and few, and the dead birds lie frozen about the windows and shrubbery, their soft brown plumage and white striped wings were but a summer suit.”

Today, we whimper and crumble when three inches of snowfall call for a two-hour delay of schools. Impassioned pleas to our heroic Department of Public Works bemoan the fact that the “side streets” have not quite been shaved free of ice to the bare pavement below. Trust me, the old days were not necessarily the good old days. Dealing with snow in the early 19th century was an arduous task. Samuel B. Noyes, a prominent Canton historian, wrote in 1887, “The poetry of sleighing parties is not what it was 60 years ago, when before there were any railroads, the farmers, nearly all of them, in the country towns kept at least one yoke of oxen and many of them three yoke, and after a heavy fall of snow the Surveyor of Highways used to yoke his own oxen to a sled, before which a log was chained, and start fourth and call on all the farmers as he went along, supplementing his team until he had as many as ten yokes of oxen, led by one horse, and as many men standing on the sled, holding by the stakes, carrying shovels.”

This volunteer community removal of snow “went wallowing through snowdrifts all over the town.” At times hundreds of men would be employed to pack down the streets and ways of snow, by hand. The revelry of a compacted main street would soon ensue. The sleighers would gather at the taverns, inns, and meetinghouses. A supper and dance would follow. Music would fill the air, and Noyes wrote that musicians carrying “two violins, and a bass viol. and perhaps a clarinet” would accompany revelers in song. And yet by the time Noyes was writing, the taverns had all disappeared. Cobb’s Tavern, still standing today just over the line in East Sharon, continued to be a popular rendezvous point, yet had been supplanted by meeting spots near wealthy industrialist’s homes on Pleasant and Chapman streets.

The downside to the frivolity was the fact that the sleighers turned out in great numbers, and the speed by which they raced was so excessive that the police began to clamp down on the fun. “The sport was too good to last long. The sleighers became more numerous every day, and the police mindful of the bylaws of the town, which prohibit fast driving in the streets, felt compelled to interrupt the fun.” The races that took place between the intersection of Bolivar and Washington down to the railroad crossing became easy targets for the local constabulary. And, in true local fashion, the mid 18th century “Massholes” began racing from the point of the high school on Washington Street to “The Corner,” where the current police station stands.

Most popular in Canton were the straight stretches of roads covered and packed with more than a foot of dense snow, making for superb racing lanes. The newspaper was filled with racing reports and there are detailed notes on the conditions and participants in the races. Another local tidbit detailed the fact that Britton’s Stables “has brought out a brand-new boat sleigh capable of seating 40 persons. It is a beautiful model, is elegantly trimmed, handsomely painted and strongly ironed.” It must have been impressive and quite large owing to the fact that 40 people could share in the merriment and noisemaking. And details from photos of the day show horses’ harnesses adorned with straps bearing bells as a way to avoid collisions at blind intersections, since a horse-drawn sleigh in snow makes almost no noise.

People were wild about sleighing, and the more the merrier. Wealthy families in particular enjoyed sleighing as evidenced by correspondence that has been cataloged and survive today in the local historical society collection. An 1855 letter from Hannah Endicott in Canton to her sister in New York exclaimed “the sleighing is capital” and went on to describe how “one of the old cows slipped on some ice and hurt her shin.” Certainly not related to sleighing, but rather the winter weather.

There is a season to everything. And the Canton Notes of the Norfolk County Gazette reported on February 12, 1877 that, “The snow is nearly gone from the highways and the sledding is spoilt. Pratt the provision dealer from Norwood came over the Tiot Plain by the Willow Road across the Neponset, with a tandem team with a heavy load and reports the travelling good with wheels.” The very next day a snowstorm tore into New England and the sleighing resumed.

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