For the past 12 years, a vintage sleigh sat in the rafters of the Carriage House facility at Two Rivers Heritage Museum in Washougal, attracting a lot of dust but not a lot of attention.
The sleigh presented the museum’s volunteers with a conundrum. Not only did they not know what to do with it, but they didn’t know much about it — other than the fact that the sleigh was taking up valuable space that could be used for other things.
“It wasn’t really on display,” said Camas-Washougal Historical Society (CWHS) display committee volunteer Karen Johnson. “You really couldn’t see it. We were wondering, ‘Where did it come from? How was it used?’ We just don’t have information about those things. We asked some of the people who have been here awhile, ‘What’s the story behind that thing?’ And nobody knew. We weren’t doing justice to that beautiful (sleigh). It needed more attention than we could give it.”
As Richard Johnson, former president of the museum board and current board director, put it: “Having an item with no story was tough for us to have on display.”
That’s why the museum’s board members and volunteers were elated when Suzanne Grover, the city of Washougal’s parks and cemetery manager, showed an interest in the sleigh.
“I was at the museum doing some research for the Wing Wing mural project, and I happened to talk to Richard (Johnson), and he said he had a sleigh and was attempting to find a home for it because it didn’t fit into (the museum’s) program anymore,” Grover said. “I asked to see it, and I was super stoked. I thought it would fit with the theme of our lighted Christmas parade. We needed something fitting for Santa Claus to ride in, and we thought the sleigh would be a great addition.”
The CWHS, which operates the museum, was happy to donate the sleigh to the city in early December, just days before it made its parade debut on Dec. 5.
“This is a win-win situation,” said museum volunteer Walt Eby. “The city got something and we got some space that we’re both able to utilize. The museum is elated that the sleigh has found a new location and will be on display for the community to enjoy it more often.”
The city was “excited to accept the gift of this beautiful sleigh,” said Washougal Mayor Molly Coston.
“It makes the perfect ride for Santa and Mrs. Claus on their yearly appearance at our Lighted Christmas Parade,” Coston stated in a news release issued by the city. “It is so quaint and nostalgic and in great condition.”
Camas resident Louise Heberling-West donated the antique wooden sleigh, which is forest green with silver decorations and plush red horsehair-padded seats, to the CWHS in 2007. The gift also included a doctor’s buggy and small covered wagon — both of which remain on display at the Carriage House next to the Washougal museum.
“The family contacted us because they were selling their house and wondered if we could use (the items),” Eby said. “Well, what were we going to do with that suggestion? It sounded great, but we had no on-site storage.”
To accommodate Heberling-West’s donation, the museum’s board decided to build the structure adjacent to the museum now known as the Carriage House.
Richard Johnson said the items came to the Heberling family estate from eastern Oregon. An appraisal of the sleigh indicated that it was built around 1875, according to Karen Johnson.
“The items were (used on) a small family farm,” Eby said. “The grandkids would utilize them during the year. In the summertime, they’d go out and hook the mules up to the wagon, and they’d hook up the mules to the sleigh in the wintertime, to go out into the pasture and have some fun. These objects (provided a) family activity.”
“You can imagine that in eastern Oregon, in pioneer times, these sleighs would be very important for wintertime activities,” Richard Johnson added. “Back in the day, before they started plowing roads and (driving) decent vehicles, these sleighs were probably not just decorative. This one is more decorative, but they probably used some crude ones to get from point A to point B.”
The buggy will take the sleigh’s former rafter residence in the Carriage House, which is undergoing some rearranging this winter.
“(Removing the sleigh) will allow us to improve the displays in the Carriage House and enhance Louisa Wright’s story,” Richard Johnson said, referring to the Camas-Washougal area’s first female doctor. “We have a mine display put together from last year, and (we’ll) open up the floor space. A lot of things will be better.”
The sleigh is currently being stored at the city’s cemetery, where Dean Porter, the city’s cemetery sexton, will begin restoration work next year, according to Grover. The front of the sleigh has a noticeable crack, and some of the paint has faded.
“It came with a bit of damage. It’s very old,” Grover said. “Dean will do some conditioning work, touch it up and make it look like new. It needs a little love, but by the time it’s cleaned up for next year’s parade, it will look fabulous. It really is a pretty piece. Now we just need to find a horse or reindeer to pull it.”
The city also will look for a place better display the sleigh.
“That’s my goal,” Grover said. “We’re challenged for storage anyhow, and adding something else that needs a bit of room to shine is another challenge for us. We’ll do the best we can to find a good location for it so that it can be seen and safely stored.”
Richard Johnson said he believes the Heberling family would “be happy” with the museum’s decision to give the sleigh to the city.
“I think that if somebody gives you something unrestricted, you should make the best possible use out of it. I think keeping it in town is a great use for it,” he said. “We didn’t get a lot of value or mileage out of the sleigh because of the way it was displayed and the (lack of) story, but once the city got it on the trailer, it became a really valuable item. They made hay with it immediately, and I think that’s fantastic. We keep it local and make it useful.”