The Great Sleigh Ride
"The Great Sleigh Ride"
by Dorothy K Sykes
The winter of 1855-56 had an especially heavy snowfall which spawned a contest between Summit, Cuyahoga, and Medina counties, the likes of which have never been seen before or since. The rivalry started in February when the citizens of Solon in Cuyahoga County organized a sleigh party of seven 4-horse teams and invaded Akron carrying a crude cotton flag with the stars and stripes and a profile of a young boy with thumb to nose, and fingers extended. The words coming out of the boy's mouth declared 'You can't have it' to the residents of the Summit County seat - and the battle was on!
The contest was not about speed, but about which county could field the most teams. To be counted, sleighs had to be pulled by at least a 4 horse team. Twinsburg put up 14 teams nabbing the flag for Summit, and then Royalton showed up with 88 and captured the flag back for Cuyahoga. Competition intensified as every possible owner of a four or six horse team was recruited. Soon, on each contest day, the roads and byways were clogged with iron shod vehicles of every description. Women and children could ride along and there was talk of nothing else. Bets were placed in every pool hall, and the local ministers struggled against the tide with weekly sermons against gambling.
Its 73 teams gave Richfield the honor of providing the meeting place for the finale on March 15 as the winter was drawing to an end. From the memoirs of Jean Sheppard : "They started in the schoolyard with bands and flags and anything that could make a noise. Medina had 141 teams that day, Cuyahoga County had 151, and Summit County 171. In all 463 teams pulling sleighs and bobsleds and each carrying an average of 14 people totaled about 6,524 people and 1,864 horses"
Jennie Oviatt continues the story, remembering tales told by her grandmother Fanny Abia Carter Oviatt the day when she, a young widow, rode in the Great Sleigh Ride of 1856. She lived to be 76 and never forgot that day. Her son Miles, aged 16, had come home from the gristmill full of excitement about the coming sleigh ride. He begged "Maw" to let him take the family's two-horse team and bobsled and join the fun. His brothers and sisters, Mason, Seth [sic], Electra , Helen, and Chloe, between the ages of seven and twelve, begged to go too, and added their voices to the clamor. Brother Solomon backed his siblings up and offered to persuade the older married sisters Sara 22, and Amanda 20, and Fanny Elizabeth 18, to come home for the day and help with the chores so Maw and the whole passel of kids could go along on the ride.
"Finally Maw consented and excitment built in the Oviatt houshold as plans for the sleigh ride got underway. It promised to be a great occassion and so it was. Food was prepared to leave for the stay-at-homes and a great plenty was packed in baskets for the day trip. Everyone dressed in the warmest of homespun clothes, boots, leggings, mufflers, and wool or rabbit skin mittens before pitching into help line the floor of the four runner bobsled with straw and heated soapstones. Miles and Mason jumped into the drivers seat and the rest nestled into the straw in the back. The sleigh bells made a joyous accompaniment to the singing and laughter of the happy family on a rare holiday."
The Oviatt's two-horse team and sled fell into line behind a fine span of horses that had just come down the Hinkley Hill driven by the Sykes brothers. They proceeded to the schoolyard where they drove around and around before joining the Richfield teams that had been counted and were awaitng the final word.......Summit County was declared the winner by 20 teams and the flag was passed along to the head driver of the Richfield contingent. Cheers echoed back and forth and soon all roads were clogged as the drivers jockeyed for position. "On to Akron, On to Akron! “ resounded over and over. There the flag would be presented to the mayor and the contest declared over for 1856.
Suddenly, a commotion was started by the Medina drivers who were shouting "Foul play in the count!" Word was carried back and forth demanding another count. Fisticuffs were exchanged and a few of the horses reared up. Word came back that the next contest would be held on March 18, but until then, Summit County would retain the flag. "On to Akron" resounded once more and the procession moved forward.
It was getting late, and drivers started looking for ways to break the line and return to Richfield. It was mid-afternoon and the Oviatt kids were half starved and exhausted with excitementwhen the food baskets were opened. Fried chicken, roast beef, ham, home made bread, apple butter, mouth-watering cake, and raisin-filled cookies were devored as the horses made their way home. Chloe put her head on Maw's lap and was soon fast asleep. The rest of the children spent their time with extravagent boasts of how they would "beat the pants off Medina" when they met again on the 18th. Amanda did a bit of daydreaming about the victory dance to be held at the Stage Coach Inn shortly after their return home. Everybody young and old attended the victory dance followed by an oyster supper. Maw insisted that the younger Oviatts go home early, but Sara, Amanda, and Fanny Elizabeth stayed on to see the sunup. The faithful horses were well fed, blanketed and sheltered in the big shed next to the church across the street for a much-appreciated rest.
Some accounts of the sleigh rides of the winter of 1856 claim that the excitement of the contest had reached its peak and the men were tired of the game. Others said that the weather had changed and many feared a thaw would put an end to the sleighing conditions. As it turned out, there were enough who did accept Medina's challenge and turned out on March 18, bright and early. Claims handed down from that day insist that Medina begged and borrowed every horse, sled and sleigh that could be mustered and had 182 four-horse teams and one team of four mules to be counted. Thus, they won the flag even though their horses struggled home in a sea of mud...... Our historian closed her memoirs of the occasion; ‘'excitement ran high for the victors. Brass bands turned out, bells rang, cannon were fired, and there was a deafening roar of human voices. The flag which attracted so much effort was taken to the Medina County Court House where it remained for years before it mysteriously disappeared. "
re- printed in the Bath Country Journal