Hitched to History

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2008. All rights reserved.

It hasn't been all that many years since horses were the primary mode of transportation all across the West. They not only pulled buggies and wagons, and sleighs in the winter, but they also powered the plows and cultivators that tamed an arid land.
Les Broadie remembered well those horse-drawn days. They were as near to him as his well-weathered hands, and as much a part of his life when I met him in 1995 as they were when he was youngster in the 1920s.

After his retirement from raising draft horses and cattle, Les operated Blizzard Mountain Carriages -- a one-man outfit specializing in buying and selling horse-drawn wagons, carriages, carts and sleighs. At the time, we was one of but a handful of American horse-drawn carriage dealers still in business.

"It all started when I bought a two-seated buggy for myself to take my grandkids to fairs and parades," Les recalled. "This guy I knew asked me if I'd sell it and offered me a good price. Then, when I went back and got another one this other guy heard about it and he bought it."
Les' business spread by word of mouth. He contracted with Amish carriage-builders he knows in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri to custom-build wagons, sleighs and other non-motorized vehicles for his clients. "They are the finest craftsmen," Les said of the Amish. "They make the best carriages."

While the religious convictions of the Amish prevent them from riding in carriages with rounded corners and fancy trimmings, the ones they built for Blizzard Mountain were custom-painted and outfitted to specifications. Everything was hand-crafted. Even the spokes on the wheels were shaved with hand tools rather than a power lathe.
"They buy old running gear and upgrade it," Les pointed out. " Then they put on new spokes, new wheels, and new iron."
Hand-crafted from red oak using traditional methods from the 19th century, the Amish can complete a wagon in a month's time with whole families, including children, working on the project.  Each sleigh or wagon built for Les' customers was tattooed with a rose -- the Blizzard Mountain trademark.
"I thought this would be a good hobby. It would keep me busy and give me a chance to travel. Well, it turned out to be a pretty good business," Les pointed out.

Horse-Drawn Sleigh Ride at Twilight in a Snowy Landscape by Ira Block

At his home on the high desert of southern Idaho near the town of Arco, Les sifted through piles of snapshots of his carriages: covered wagons in Oklahoma, buggies in California, sleighs in Colorado. Several long vis-à-vis carriages were purchased by commercial liveries to transport tourists around historic areas and vacation areas like Old Town in Sacramento, California, and the Sun Valley resort in Idaho. Others were bought by collectors or hobbyists to ride in parades and other special occasions.
In 1993, at 79 years of age, Broadie drove one of his horse-drawn Conestoga covered wagons more than 1,000 miles from Kansas to Oregon as part of the Sesquicentennial celebration of the Oregon Trail. For 75 days Les and a dozen or more history buffs traveled on or near the historic trail in a modern replica of the emigrant wagon trains of the 1840s. It was in a similar wagon train that Les' grandmother traveled the trail 150 years earlier.
"I wanted to see if she was much tougher than I am and I'm convinced of that now. Of course, we still had it pretty soft on the trail compared to what they endured," Les said with a chuckle. "That was quite an experience. We covered a lot of territory and met a lot of people. I was ready to come home by the time we were through."
Les' horse-drawn wanderlust quickly recovered, though. The following year he planned and rode in another wagon train, this one a three-week ride across the "Goodale's Cutoff" section of the Oregon Trail through Idaho.
"I must not have been rocked much as a baby because I've never cared much for rocking chairs," he says. "I'm sure not going to grow old in one."

Les Broadie passed away last April. His was laid to rest following a final ride in one of his Amish covered wagons surrounded by his wife, his family and his many friends.

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