When children tour the Denver Sleigh Works shop, their most pressing question is which sleigh looks most like the one Santa Claus flies.
“I ask them which one they think it is, but I don’t tell them that none of my sleighs really fly,” replies owner Bill Engel as he strides through his Denver, Mo., shop like a teacher in a classroom.
Engel is a retired teacher, but his subject is no longer accounting courses he taught for nearly 30 years at Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, Mo. Instead he has become a history teacher of sorts, passing on knowledge and an appreciation for an element of the past through his passion for antique horse-drawn sleighs.
“I’ve always been interested in tradition, and I like woodworking, so when I saw one for sale, I thought it needed my help,” Engel says.
That was a little more than three years ago. Today, Engel owns more than 50 antique sleighs. His collection includes work sleighs, bob sleighs, and cutters, which were built for speed and popularized in Currier and Ives winter scenes.
In his workshop, a former grocery store and restaurant on the square in this northwest Missouri town of 40 people, Engel stores, restores, and teaches about horse-drawn sleighs, which fell out of common usage in the early 1900s with the advent of the automobile and urbanization.
Engel’s favorite acquisition came from a barn just a few miles down the road in Worth County. It’s a sleigh once owned by the county doctor—one that carried him on house calls throughout the area to deliver babies, set broken bones, and dispense the medicines and comforts of a century past.
“I like to look at each of my sleighs and imagine the people that rode in them and the kind of life they led,” he says. “You can tell a lot about a family by its sleigh; whether they were rich or poor, whether they lived in town or on a farm, and if this vehicle was for work or pleasure.”
Engel calls his passion just a hobby, but his mother, Mary, 95, calls him crazy, and a local television station called him the “Savior of Sleighs.” Linda, his wife of 36 years, wonders how many sleighs will be enough, but openly shares his enthusiasm about preserving the past.
“Tradition is something that is very important,” Linda says. “Kids need to know how things used to be.” Linda and Bill have three children and five grandchildren and 3,000 acres of farmland perfect for teaching vanishing traditions of a rural life to children.
“My daughters keep waiting for it to snow so they can ride in the sleigh,” says Ofelia Garcia, who took her two daughters, ages 9 and 5, to see Engel’s collection. “They had only seen sleighs in pictures, and I was so pleased for them to be able to see these in real life.”
But elderly visitors to Denver Sleigh Works remember their own experiences of dashing through the snow in sleighs identical to the cutters, swell bodies, and work sleds that fill Engel’s shop.
“I remember riding over the fence tops on our way to a charivari in my father’s homemade sleigh,” says Agnes Langford, 80, of Albany, Mo. “My grandkids don’t believe me, but if they could see these sleighs, they might understand.”
By sharing his knowledge and collection, Engel is contributing to the preservation of rural life. “Bill’s business is in the right place,” says Rhonda Richards, Worth County economic developer. “His attitude and enthusiasm are as priceless as his wonderful sleighs.”