"Watch out! Here I come!"

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2000,
December 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

When kids could sled down city streets all winter long

Sledding down the middle of city streets? No parents in their right mind would let their children do that today, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was done with the blessing of the city. Every neighborhood had at least one steep street blocked off for sledding, and often there were several within walking distance.

"Oh, it was fun, really fun," recalls Walter Metzger, who sledded on three such streets: Koch from Third to Main, Division from Packard to Hill, and Eighth from Washington to Liberty. "The city blocked the streets with a big long [saw] horse. They also blocked the side streets, but they'd leave room for the residents to drive through. It was very safe. I never remember anybody having an accident with a car."

Al Gallup, who sledded down Highland and Awixa, recalls that the city brought out a sawhorse at the beginning of the season and left it at the side of the road except when the kids were actually sledding. Hills on Broadway and Felch were popular spots. Bob Ryan, who lived on Longshore, used to sled from the top of his street clear down to Argo Pond and, if possible, right out onto the frozen water. "There was no traffic," he recalls. "The only house was Mr. Saunders's of the canoe livery, and he knew to be careful [when driving]."

If there were no sawhorses, one of the kids would stand guard at potentially dangerous intersections, warning sledders when they needed to stop. Braking was done by dragging feet, swerving onto lawns, or, if all else failed, jumping off just before a collision. Harlan Otto, who used to slide down Koch Street, remembers they didn't necessarily stop even at Main. "We'd have someone at the bottom [of Koch] to look out. One time we went down and around the comer on Main all the way to Madison."

Flexible Flyers were the sleds of choice because "you could steer them," explains Coleman Jewett. "Others you had to lean on to guide." Brad Stevens recalls that Flexible Flyers came in different lengths: "The longer it was, the more prestigious." John Hathaway recalls that his Flexible Flyer (which he still has hanging in his garage) was purchased at Hertler's, and that as a special deal the Hertler brothers cut him a piece of rope to tie on the front.

"Not many had sleds," recalls Otto, so "we used to ride double. The bigger kids would get on the bottom and the little on top." Kids sometimes went down a hill on a number of sleds chained together, sticking their toes between the opening where the sled was steered. Occasional mishaps occurred, but the victims all lived to tell the tale.

Larger groups of kids rode on toboggans and bobsleds, the latter often homemade. Hathaway recalls that the bobsleds went a lot faster and could be dangerous if you left a limb dangling. Jewett says that a family in his neighborhood, the Bakers, had a toboggan that held twelve or fourteen kids. "It was fun. Just don't sit in front or back," he warns.

Sometimes kids would enhance their sledding routes by pouring water in the tracks. Metzger recalls that "Bob Muehlig used to take buckets of water and pour it on the curb to make runs for a bobsled." Ryan remembers pouring water on Longshore in new snow so toboggan tracks would freeze at night. "We'd go like the gun the next morning," he recalls.

The kids would come home sopping wet after sledding. "We all had coal furnaces with registers on the floor. We'd take off our clothes to dry off," Metzger recalls. "The adults hated the cold and snow, but kids loved it," says Jewett. That part is probably the same today.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: John Hathaway still has the Flexible Flyer his parents bought at Hertler's.