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Grand Forks Sleigh Ride


With only a few weeks remaining until Old St. Nickolas comes down the chimney with his bag of toys, the sights and sounds of Christmas fill the air. Christmas carols often remind us of “Christmases long, long ago.” On this date in 1950, L. K. VanAlstine of Grand Forks and Theresa Thoreson of East Grand Forks recalled an even earlier time. It was a time when there was the jingling of bells as horses skimmed along the frozen surface of the Red River in a one-horse open sleigh. For those romantically inclined, one horse could easily pull a couple in a sleigh, known as a cutter, but according to VanAlstine, for real class, a span of horses was better. In fact, he recommended a “spanking pair of grays,” a term applied to white horses with black skins. The word “spanking” meant capable at moving with a quick, lively pace, coming from the Danish word “spanke” which means to strut. So, in 1900, sleigh riding was one of the great winter sports in Grand Forks.

The Bacon & VanAlstine Livery Barn had as many as one hundred cutters out on some Sunday afternoons. Fur coats, warm caps and buggy robes of buffalo or some other fur were the trappings of the sleigh. And of course, one essential ingredient was the sleigh bell. Rings of sleigh bells were placed on the horses and others were placed on the pole between the teams, or on the shafts on each side of the horse in a one-horse sleigh. There were one, two and three-toned sets of bells.

Miss Thoreson recalled that besides the pleasure of just going for a ride up and down the Red River, it also served as a highway to visit families and friends. And she recalled that the cool breeze blowing against the cheeks of the women supplied a rouge that the drugstores could not imitate.

So, as you hustle through the busy holiday season and hear songs such as Jingle Bells, think back to Christmases long ago. Think back to a time when a spanking team of grays, venting steam in the frigid air, toted a sleigh loaded with laughing, caroling revelers, and think back to a time when the jingling of sleigh bells added excitement to the cold, blustery streets, avenues and even the frozen river highways in the winter wonderland of North Dakota.

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis


The Grand Forks Herald December 10, 1950