Sleds Served Kentucky Pioneers Well Into 20th Century. They Could Negotiate Rough Terrain And Steep Hillsides

By James Clell Neace - 2000

In the October 2000 issue of The Kentucky Explorer, Victor Jones wrote about the first permanent settlers of the 25-mile stretch of Troublesome Creek, between Dwarf and Haddix, Kentucky. In the center of this area is located the little place called Hardshell, where I grew up.

During my youth, the people at Hardshell lived much the same as their pioneer ancestors had lived, arriving from Virginia in the 1790s. When the Civil War came no wagons had yet been introduced on Troublesome Creek, and all hauling was done on sleds. The only roads there were rough and rocky sled roads.

This fact of life was discovered the hard way by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan on June 4 and 5, 1864, when he came down Troublesome from Virginia, on his way to make his last raid on his native state of Kentucky. Marching with Morgan was Captain Edward Owing Guerrant, who hailed from near Mount Sterling, Kentucky. Later in life, Guerrant returned to Breathitt County to do extensive building of churches and schools. On his wartime trip, Guerrant kept a journal of Morgan's raid. Here is what Guerrant wrote concerning the Army's passage down Troublesome:

"The descent of Troublesome, over the rough terrain there, was toilsome. A troublesome journey; awful traveling on our horses; dozens of horses broke down. The Army stopped for the night at the farm of an elderly woman named Holliday (probably located at Ary). Mrs. Holliday told me her eyes had never before seen a wagon. Well, well, well, wonders never cease on Troublesome."
By the time I was born there were a few wagons in use on Troublesome, mostly owned by local merchants, but the roads were still narrow and filled with rocks, boulders, and (during wet weather) mudholes. The people there still did most of their hauling in home-built sleds. The sleds could negotiate the rough terrain and even traverse the steep hillsides for the purpose of gathering corn and other products. When going down a steep hillside, the teamster would truss heavy tow-chains around the sled runners in order to avoid a runaway sled that threatened tragedy for the horse.

The sleds used at Troublesome were of the type I have called the Hardshell model in the enclosed sketches. It was customary to construct these sleds entirely of freshly-rived wood, split by means of a froe and maul from a section of a tree trunk. Compared to sawed planks, with their irregular grains, split wood is stronger, more supple, and more easily worked with tools.

This Hardshell model required extensive drawknife detailing of the standards (upright shafts) so they would pass through auger holes in the crosspieces (see the sketches). The requirement for shoulders on the standards, which supported the installed crosspieces, made it necessary to start with an oversized shaft of wood so it could be hewn down to size.

At the age of 18 years, I was employed as a beginning schoolteacher at Laurel School, a one-room grade school located at the head of the South Fork of Quicksand Creek. This school was located eight miles from my home at Hardshell. There I noticed that the local sleds were built on an entirely different pattern from the Hardshell sleds (I have called this sled the South Fork model in the sketches). The main difference between the two sleds is the way the standards are connected to the crosspieces.

My curiosity was soon aroused, and I decided to try my luck at making one of these new sleds. It turned out that the South Fork sled was easier and quicker to build than the Hardshell sled. The main saving of time was in the making of the standards. The South Fork model merely required a few licks with a hatchet on a flat board, rived with a froe from a stave-bolt, followed by an auger hole for the crosspiece and a hewed knob at the bottom end for fitting into the sled runner.

The success of a sled-building project depends upon the finding of good sled runners. Here the choice of wood is usually limited to sourwood. This tree has a natural tendency to grow in a crook, like a sled runner. One tree section, if large enough, can be split to form two runners, which are then dressed with an ax. Note in the sketches that auger holes, typically about one-and-a-half inches in diameter, are bored into the runners and used to mount the standards. An oblong "eye" is bored at the front end of the runners. This is used for mounting the beam that connects the two runners. For strength, this beam should be made of hickory, since here is where the steers or horses pull.

As the sled is used, the sled runners constantly wear away so that, eventually, a repair job is needed. This renewal of the sled is accomplished by the attachment of half soles, by means of tight-fitting wooden pins, about three-fourths of an inch in diameter, driven with a hammer into holes bored with an auger.

The preferred wood for half soles is hickory. Maple wood is preferred for the pins. The standards and crosspieces are usually made of oak; a straight, strong, supple, wood that is easily split and worked with the various tools used for sled making; including axes, hatchets, wedges, froes, and drawknives. The slats, rived with a froe for making sled beds, are usually kept thin to minimize the weight that must be pulled by the draft animal.

The white dividing line of old Highway 15 can be seen near Hardshell, Kentucky. Just behind Hardshell is a narrow cornfield. Just behind the corn gently flows historic Troublesome Creek.

Ned Fugate, who was a descendant of pioneer settlers of that area, like them, was a subsistence farmer. With his nimble-footed steers pulling his bulltongued plow, his sleds, and his timber from the forest, Ned produced what he needed to sustain his family. His whole economy was based on corn. He and his steers had to produce plenty of corn in order to provide food for the family, their livestock, and their chickens. This explains the need for tending the tiny corn patches, often squeezed in between the creek and the highway.

The coal in Ned's sled, laboriously dug with a pick, came from a seam in a cliff situated along old Highway 15, at a "bend" of Troublesome, directly across from my grandmother's home. This coal had been exposed during blasting for construction of the highway.

The light load of coal was obviously too small to require two yokes of steers (four steers) to pull the sled. But there were two steers in the rear, probably juveniles in training, that Ned was raising for sale to some customer. Ned's main team of steers were in front. He named them "Buck" and "Berry."

Ned's sled had about five standards on each side, instead of the three standards I have shown in the sketches. Also, a reinforcement strip had been fastened to the top of the bed, probably having auger holes for fitting the tips of the standards. "Ox-bows" were fitted around the neck of each steer. These bows and the rather heavy yokes correspond to the padded collars worn by horses, when pulling a load.

As we take leave of Ned, "Buck," and "Berry," it is fitting that we recall the words of Captain Guerrant: "Well, well, well, wonders never cease on Troublesome!"

Utilizing help from his faithful steers, Ned Fugate made his own living, in his own way, and on his own farm. This lifestyle served him well during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At a time when some starving, unemployed Americans were seeking succor at soup kitchens, Ned's work ethic and know-how prevailed. The food he produced enabled him to serve substantial meals at his table, despite the hard times pervading America.

Chalk up some more Troublesome Creek wonders, namely Ned, "Buck," "Berry," and the sled. May Mr. Fugate's timely legacy of self-help, as a way to hold out against hardships, never cease to be a wonder.

Diagram #1, Diagram #2
James Clell Neace, 377 Freedom Road, Blackville, SC 29817-4533, is a native of Breathitt County and a regular contributor to "The Kentucky Explorer."