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January 16: Sleigh Rides Together with You

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Winter in North Dakota can be a challenge, but it can also offer great experiences and traditions. This month we’re sharing a few special Dakota Datebooks as part of Vinterfest, in conjunction with the Northern Plains National Heritage Area and Sons of Norway Sverdrup Lodge.

North Dakotans have attempted to pass the time during the long, cold winter through leisure, and one activity that can be enjoyed as leisure has also been a vital means of transportation – sleigh rides.

Writing his mother on January 12th, 1889, Matthew Steele, a young Army officer stationed at Fort Yates discussed the inability to engage in sleigh rides, noting drifts up to the horse’s girth, or the opposite problem of bare ground. Steele also described the arduous task of having a comfortable ride, as the only good place was in the river bottom where trees obstructed the wind well enough that snow could accumulate. Even then, getting there meant dragging the sleigh for more than a mile over bare ground, sand, and gravel.

Sleighs were also used in agriculture, as Rudolph Haugen recalled in an oral history interview in 1975. He noted that you could not dump grain from a sleigh like you could with a wagon. Rather, they had to shovel it all. With winter conditions making roads impossible with a wagon, a sleigh, even with the extra work, was often vital.

Some got creative with their sleighs. In 1919, The Ward County Independent noted that Clarence Cummings of Carrington had designed a “wind sleigh.” He built it using an automobile chassis mounted on a sleigh, with a water-cooled motor on the back connected to an airplane propeller in the front. His motorized sleigh could reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour! Though the vehicle could only carry one passenger, Cummings hoped to improve the design to allow his sleigh to carry more people and be powered by an air-cooled motor.

These days, sleighs can evoke memories of fun times as part of winter activities. One can imagine the jingle of the sleigh bells mixed with the laughter of the bundled-up riders.

Dakota Datebook by Daniel Sauerwein


  • Matthew Steele to his mother, 12 January 1889, Box 3, Folder 7, Matthew Forney Steele Papers, State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota.
  • Rudolph N. Haugen, interview by Robert L. Carlson, May 30, 1975, interview 1024AB, transcript, North Dakota Oral History Project Records, State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota.
  • Ward County Independent (Minot, ND, December 18, 1919), accessed November 28, 2023.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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