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Dashing Through Snow In St. Johnsbury’s Yesteryear

Upon entering the carriage barn at the St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center, your eyes will spot many objects that speak of winter. There are the traverses or bobsleds that hang on the wall, as well as scooters or jack-jumpers. On another wall are examples of old wooden sleds, wooden skis, and a pair of skates that strapped to your shoes or boots. Two Ryan sleighs suggest the transportation of the season and the Handy ice cutting objects suggest the work of the season.

To highlight two different sources of winter recreation that both involve sliding, we will reflect back on the jack-jumper, also referred to as a scooter, and traverse. The jack-jumper in its simplest form, was a barrel stave with a seat attached to it. Once on the seat, the length of your ride down a hill is determined by your skill of balancing, sometimes without touching a foot to the ground. Edward Fairbanks, in his book, The Town of St. Johnsbury, makes reference to them. Around 1846, he speculated that “more scooters were put together in a woodshed at the south end of the Plain, than elsewhere in all the town of St. Johnsbury.” The Plain refers to what we call Main Street.

Edward himself might well have started this invention in St. Johnsbury where he recalls a choice line of barrel staves and all taking part in making their scooter. The evolution of this scooter had a steel runner, with iron-rod uprights and a painted seat! In the History & Heritage collection, there are two with a metal runner and painted seats, one belonging to Joe Fairbanks who was brought up in Brantview, the mansion at the southern end of the Plain. The other scooter has a red and black seat with the name Cornelia Fairbanks scratched into the bottom of the seat; she was the daughter of Edward – like Father, like daughter!!

The other reference to this winter sport was in the Peter and Polly In Spring book. This was a series of books written by Rose Lucia, a principal of the primary school in Montpelier in 1915. She wrote of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter of the lives of Peter & Polly of East St. Johnsbury. One chapter is called Peter’s Jumper, where they take a barrel stave and attach a wooden seat to it with the help of their father. They speak of the fact that they were also referred to as “scooters.” The illustrations that accompany the chapter are wonderful.

One more personal reference to the jack-jumper was my granddaughter Molly being inquisitive of the jumpers hanging on the wall. I have my uncle’s in the cellar, so we got it out so she could try it. It is not for the faint of heart and something Molly chose not to pursue after a brief ride!

The Traverse-sled is sometimes referred to as a bobsled. The ones displayed on our walls have a couple of runners, back and front and vary in the overall length of the seat. The longest one has a stencil on it reading a “a couple of kids” and belonged to the Conly family of St. Johnsbury. There are foot holders that come out from under the seat and without too much effort, this traverse could hold upwards of seven or eight! Documentation tells us that this traverse has done Concord Avenue where you can just imagine coming down the hill, easily passing through the intersection and possibly making it to what we call Fred Mold Park today. Edward Fairbanks tells of yesterday’s ride at the southern end of Summer Street (Warner Hill) down to Western Avenue and possibly landing in the vicinity of the blacksmith shops at the Scale Works!

Claire Dunne Johnson speaks about this source of recreation in her book, I See By the Paper – Volume I. In the 1890s, Warner Hill was the site of a traverse accident where John Rickaby at the age of 17 broke his leg so badly that it had to be amputated above the knee. She speaks of various streets in 1895 being set aside for sliding. This occurred usually on Wednesdays, and involved Hastings, Pleasant, Central and Concord Avenue. One must recall the roads were not plowed, but packed by the snow rollers of yesteryear!

Another traverse on the wall has a steering wheel, the design of Leon LaClair who ran a sheet metal shop in St. Johnsbury. My recollection of the ride of my lifetime was above Mt. Pleasant Extension known as Crepeault Hill. I’m not sure why I am still here as my uncle knew no fear!! With the coming of the snowplow, the sand truck and traffic, this winter sport became a part of history on the streets of St. Johnsbury!

These are just a couple of examples of old-fashioned winter sports that entertained yesterday’s youth and were rarely forgotten.

Peggy Pearl is executive director at St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center, located at 421 Summer St. For more information on the center, visit the website:

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