Every time a bell jingles, he buys another sleigh

Monday, December 23, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh. O'er the fields we go, laughing all the...

Wait a second. When was the last time anyone dashed anywhere like this?

"At Christmas we sing 'Over the River' and 'Jingle Bells,' but most people have never ridden in a sleigh and have no idea what the thrill of it was like," Bill Engel said.

Would you, for instance, know that those elegant Currier & Ives sleighs with the voluptuously curved seats atop graceful runners are called cutters?

Would you know a Portland cutter if you saw one? Bet you would. Santa drives one of those square-bodied sleighs.

And Engel has several. The former Kansas Citian collects cutters and other horse-drawn sleighs the way others amass salt and pepper shakers and snow globes. His collection of 55 or so antique sleighs takes up the entire lower level of an old grocery store across from the town square in Denver, Mo.

He bought his first sleigh at an auction four years ago -- "Mom got a new car and Dad got a new sleigh," said daughter Holly Smothers -- and he couldn't stop at just one.

As he searches for these Christmas icons, Engel considers himself a savior of sleighs, and their stories.

"Everything today seems to be moving back toward our past, and tradition is what Christmas is all about," says the 63-year-old grandfather of five. "That's what we're trying to preserve."

Engel runs Denver Sleigh Works near the Missouri-Iowa border, about 2 1/2 hours northwest of Kansas City.

Highways D and M lead to Denver, Mo., roller-coastering up and down through farm country. Drivers scoot past one another on the narrow lanes and lift a hand off the steering wheel in that friendly, back roads salute.

Denver, home to about 50, wears a deserted look. But the town hops when the restaurant, open only Fridays and Saturdays in the old bank building, draws crowds with its prime rib supper.

Denver Sleigh Works stands near the restaurant. In the window Engel has posted a vivid orange sign that urges passers-by to "Think Snow." Inside the unheated building, dimly lit by fluorescent lights, sleighs are stacked to the ceiling on a rack along one wall.

Engel's passion ignited at an auction in Iowa where he first saw a sleigh made into a coffee table. As a lover of all things old, he vowed to save others from becoming home decor.

Fancy after-market bells and whistles included holders for the whip and a boot scrape so passengers wouldn't drag dirt and snow into the sleigh.

And speaking of bells, the jingle bells the horses wore 'round their necks did more than inspire a Christmas carol.

A sleigh could dash silently like a stealth bomber through the snow. In the absence of a horn, "the bells were to tell people you were coming," Engel said.

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