“Over the river and through the woods” was a familiar refrain in an old tune. It sounds like a pleasant description of a trip to Grandma’s house, but many years ago such an outing could turn into “a night to remember forever.” That’s how my aunt recalled one frigid winter night in the mid 1920s. It was a trip from our Auburn farm across the frozen Androscoggin River to visit relatives in Greene.

Edith Sargent was then 6 or 7 years old and my father, who was in his teens, was taking Edith and my grandmother by sleigh along that star-lit river highway. Many years later, she told about the experience in her Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine Section column.

“I was frightened and, at the same time, eager,” she wrote, as she described how Polly, the family’s high-spirited horse, “snorted great clouds of steam as she left her warm stall and was backed between the shafts of the pung.” Heated bricks had been wrapped in newspaper and placed in the deep straw at their feet.

“I was apprehensive because I had often seen the river freeze over in front of our house just below the Deer Rips Dam and then break loose the next day,” she wrote. “I had watched great hunks of ice like huge Juggernauts smash and grind against the shore. I had heard my father tell of teams that went through the ice.”

No tragedies befell the trio that night. The horse eased herself down the bank to the river ice just above the newly built Gulf Island Dam. Edith cringed when Polly crashed through the shell ice along the shore, but their reliable horse quickly pulled the pung onto thick ice.

“Polly shook her head in surprise as she found that the pung with its load practically moved of its own accord along the slick surface,” Edith wrote. “Her greatest problem was to keep from getting bumped by the runners. Sharp calks made her sure-footed.”

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The rest of the trip spun magical memories.

“There were no lights in sight other than the quarter moon and the stars. Empty farmhouses, deserted when the river flooded their fields (behind the new dam), had settled down into snowdrifts like crooked little boxes. It looked like a toy world.”

Suddenly there came a vague sound, my aunt recalled.

“At first it was more a feeling than a sound. Polly pricked up her ears and pranced sideways. The sound increased. It became an ominous roll that traveled from shore to shore as though some giant had a tremendous stomach ache. Then the tone became shrill and shattered the night with a blood curdling scream.”

My father laughed.

“That’s only the ice growling,” he told his little sister and his mother. He said it was easing the pressure of the cold.

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Soon they spotted a familiar, tree-covered island and the glow of lights at the relative’s house.

“As we rode ashore, winter gave one departing roar and the river answered with a sliver of sound that must have pierced the stars,” she wrote. “That ripped all my fantasy apart and I looked forward to warming my feet over the hot air register.”

I have one other account of winter sleighing in the 1920s that my father wrote. In the program for a 1977 Christmas concert at the United Methodist Church of Auburn, he described the heavy, two-horse farm sleds often used for evening hay rides. They were 18 to 20 feet long with double runners. Two-foot-high sideboards served as windbreaks, and the riders were further protected from the cold by the hay and “buffalo robes.”

Up front was “the box,” a combination seat for the driver and carry-all for feed and tools, including a hammer, to knock snowballs out of the horses’ hooves.

The sleds had no brakes. Horses had to run downhill or hold back in their “breeching” to control the sled. Steep hills called for “bridle chains” around a runner to create more drag.

My father wrote that songs soon rose from the riders … ballads, Stephen Foster, gospel and the full gamut of pre-jazz folk songs.

If toes chilled, it was off the sled to “train,” an old term for rough and tumble frolic.

“By the last mile, the mood hushed to stargazing, and finally the party was warmed by hot oyster stew at the Grange hall,” he said. “Then it was ‘Seeing Nellie Home’ in your own one-horse sleigh.”

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by email at [email protected]


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