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Hampden Rally: The Nostalgia Will Sleigh You

November 29, 1987|MICHAEL SCHUMAN | Schuman is a Keene, N.H., free-lance writer. and

HAMPDEN, Mass. — The Hampden Sleigh Rally is all about nostalgia. There are still winter mornings when the smoke from a wood stove wisps into clear skies and you can almost relive life as it was 100 years ago.

Here horse and sleigh owners from New England and New York show off as they compete for honors based on such qualities as authenticity, condition and gracefulness.

The scene looks like a Currier & Ives lithograph come to life: a circle of horse-drawn sleighs, some bright red and sleek, others black and bulky or with racing stripes, parading proudly on a field of snow.

Sleigh drivers, called reinsmen, wear clothing from the past: top hats, buffalo robes, bearskin gloves or beaver hats.

Peter Webster of Belchertown, Mass., a veteran of these rallies, sits grandly in a piano-box sleigh, named for its shape, with his top hat adding an extra half a foot to his proper demeanor; a young woman, fully decked in Victoriana, sits by his side as he holds the reins of his 16-year-old Morgan stallion, Townshend Don Bird.

Lost Count

Webster, who has won so many rallies over the years that he has lost count, explains the reasoning behind the event.

"They are depicting old times--the late 1800s and early 1900s--when horses were a means of transportation, with or without snow. Horse shows were held in all seasons but when they were held in winter, the horses had to be hitched to a sleigh. That's what we are recreating here."

Another participant, Norman Krohn from Connecticut, rides in a grand, green sleigh, about 100 years old, which was once a horse-drawn wagon converted by removing the wheels and replacing them with runners.

"That's what we did in the old country, in Canada. We were too poor to buy a sleigh," he said.

His 50 brass sleigh bells and harness are antiques and the bearded Krohn picks up his share of ribbons as his Arabian, Jamie, pulls him around the ring.

But the horses don't need to pull their weight as they might do at summer fairs; there are no tractor-pulling or weight-pulling contests.

That's just as well. "It can be tough on the horse. In winter, they're not used much and are not building their muscles, so they're not in peak condition," Webster says.

Dressing the Part

At this sleigh rally, the types of horses establish categories: For example, pony to drive, Western horse to drive, English horse to drive and draft horse to drive.

Where horse types don't set the classes, their reinsmen do: gentlemen to drive, ladies to drive and junior to drive.

For Webster, Krohn and others who like dressing the part, there's a Currier & Ives class with ribbons given to the reinsmen looking the most like they steered their sleighs through a time tunnel.

In this class, the sleighs must be certified antiques, and one hears sleigh bells clinging and clanging with every step the horses take.

And the sleigh bells! Their euphonic music is associated with winter, as is the snow itself.

Ever since a Litchfield, Conn., minister, J. S. Pierpont, wrote "Jingle Bells" for a Sunday School performance, the sound of sleigh bells on a clear winter night has turned even the most hardened cynic into a sentimentalist with a heart of mush.

During the rally's lunch break, Webster discusses and demonstrates the original use of sleigh bells.

Early Traffic Horns

Sleigh bells, he said, were early traffic horns. Because snow muffles sound and since earmuffs were commonly worn in wintertime years ago, bells were placed on horses to alert pedestrians of the oncoming sleighs.

Sleighs and sleigh bells were status symbols--the more bells, the greater the status.

Webster shows a bell strap worth $300 to $500 that sold in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalogue for $2.07. (A good sleigh at the time ranged between $16.95 and $22.50.)

The 25 bells on the strap are graduated and each has a distinct chime.

And some participants offer sleigh rides for about $1, although this often depends on the conditions of the snow and the horses.

This winter's Hampden Sleigh Rally is scheduled for Feb. 7, 1988. Admission is free.

For further information, contact Hampden Sleigh Rally, 32 Riverside Drive, Hampden, Mass. 01036, orphone (413) 566-3043.

Nearby Springfield is a city of museums. Most famous is the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, 1150 W. Columbia Ave.

Other specialty museums are the Indian Motorcycle Museum, 38 Hendee St., featuring a fine collection of early American-made motorcycles, and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, 1 Armory Square, first armory in the country and target of Shays' Rebellion in 1787.

A quartet of downtown Springfield museums occupies the quadrangle at Chestnut and State streets--the Springfield Science Museum, Smith Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, and the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum.

About half an hour east is Old Sturbridge Village, the recreated 19th-Century New England community. One could easily spend a full day visiting the more than 40 original buildings on the grounds.

Many nearby places offer accommodation packages.

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