|By Barbara and Ken Beem
DUNCANNON, Pa. — Many times during the week, but certainly on weekends, the parking lot across from the Old Sled Works is full. With some 30,000 square feet of antiques and crafts for sale, this Pennsylvania shopping mecca draws crowds of treasure seekers from near and far.
Toss in the owner’s collection of arcade machines and a vintage soda fountain, and the appeal is even greater. But there was a time when this old building was a hub of activity for another purpose.
Years ago, America’s youth entertained itself without computer games, video amusements, or satellite television. And when the snow fell, that meant taking to the steepest slopes in town, sled in tow, with the thought of downhill adventure in the offing. Capitalizing on this popular winter pastime, the “Standard Novelty Works” was organized and incorporated in 1904. Specializing in the production of sleds, the new company settled in the quaint town of Duncannon.
Located less than 20 miles northwest of the state capital of Harrisburg, Duncannon enjoyed a providential location, with frontage on the Susquehanna River and proximity to a busy rail line. William Wills was named president of the new company, formed just as the patent for steering a sled had become public property.
Thus began the labor intensive process of sled production in the new factory, which occupied two blocks along the town’s main thoroughfare. Soon the company was producing sleds with romantic names like the “Master Bomber,” the “Challenger” and the “American Racer.” But it was the “Lightning Guider” that became its most enduring line, the one most closely associated with the factory.
The company, eager to appeal to the dreams of outdoor enthusiasts, took risks, as seen by its introduction of the “Lightning Scooter,” a combination sled and scooter, in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, the company had updated its methods of production, and sleds were no longer made entirely by hand.
Still, the rough northern lumber had to be cut and shaped, the runners attached, and the entire sled dipped in a protective varnish. By the onset of World War II, “Lightning Guiders” were the only sleds still produced at the Duncannon factory. Even so, that model was so popular that, in spite of the war, 72 employees were required.
As for the sleds, they were distributed through a variety of venues. Jobbers and hardware stores, as well as department stores and sporting goods shops, sold them. Immediately after the war, some 1,600 sleds, selling for $1.33 each, were produced daily, with production highest in the summer.
With a new generation of Baby Boomers, demand increased as the post-war economy grew. By 1954, each carefully crafted sled retailed for a grand total of $4.95. Orders were filled by the dozens, with carloads of the desired commodity headed to points as far west as Los Angeles (where snow was somewhat of a novelty) to New Hampshire (where it was an overwhelming reality).
But all good things come to an end and modernization ultimately destroyed the business of the sled factory. Plastic replaced wood, and imported models superseded American-made ones. By the mid-1980s, demand for Duncannon’s sleds had all but collapsed. In an effort to fight back, the company looked for innovations to set itself apart. A prototype of the so-called “snoball sled,” a sled designed for babies, was made in 1988, but it was too late.
For nearly 85 years, millions of sleds and other wooden products, including coaster wagons, safety gates, and porch swings, had been built here and shipped throughout the United States. What was once the largest sled factory in the country officially ceased production in 1988, finally closing its doors in 1990.
The Old Sled Works
But the building was not razed. Jimmy Rosen, son of the factory’s last owner, had been bitten by the antique bug. He had the idea of turning the old buildings into an antique market. Taking his mother-in-law’s suggestion to include crafts in the new venture, he approached his father with the idea.
“I convinced my dad to let me try, and the Old Sled Works opened in April 1991,” Rosen remembered.
Billing itself as a “unique market,” the new business housed wares for sale by approximately 125 vendors. A part of the building was dedicated to a sled museum, in tribute to its former use. Today, visitors can view the company’s old switchboard (Duncannon 15R2 was the factory’s telephone number) and check out the factory’s 1914 time clock.
Various pieces of memorabilia, celebrating the company’s history include an old watch fob from 1920, a 1930 letter opener, and 1960s matchbooks, as well as pens and a variety of branded office supplies. A trove of company records have been retained, and ephemeral items on view include a 1920s trade advertising book and a repair parts sheet, salesmen’s catalogues from the 1930s, and sled brochures and hand-tinted prints. One item of particular interest is a brass device used to print the distinctive red lightning bolt logo on the hardwood slats of “Lightning Guiders.”
And then there are the sleds. Once coveted by America’s children, the wares made in Duncannon are exhibited in the small museum, arranged chronologically, including a rare 1935 “King of the Hill.”
“We have a little something to offer everyone,” Laura Steafe said. As manager of the Old Sled Works, she and her staff strive to make the market “a fun experience every time someone comes here. That might mean buying anything from a one-dollar postcard to a $5,000 crock,” she continued. Dealers live within a 50-mile radius of the market, which makes it “easier for them to take care of their booths and restock them regularly.”
She added, “Even if you aren’t interested in antiques, we have things to do.” Several times a year, the grounds are opened up to special events, including a Sled Fest (complete with antique cars) and outdoor dealer yard sales. The architecture of the building itself intrigues many, and there are still bits of machinery scattered about.
And, of course, there is a fine selection of vintage sleds for sale.
The Old Sled Works Antique & Craft Market is located at 722 North Market Street, Duncannon, Pa. For more information, call (717) 834-9333 or go to www.sledworks.com.