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A New Madsonian Museum Exhibition Celebrates the History of Sledding

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Sleds on display at the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sleds on display at the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design

Humans have been going downhill on their rear ends since, well, forever. On snow, the classic conveyance is the sled, triggering for many an image of the iconic Flexible Flyer. Yet the precursors of this seat-of-the-pants pastime have developed over many years, from rudimentary to radical.

"The History of Sledding" is the latest exhibition at the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design in Waitsfield. Housed in a modest Bridge Street dwelling built around 1845 by the Kingsbury family, the museum was established in 2011 by Vermont architect David E. Sellers as a celebration of innovative and evolutionary designs of manufactured objects, ranging from golf clubs to cars.

Famed for his fantastical, quirky housing concepts, such as the Archie Bunker and Home Run houses just outside Warren, Sellers is an inveterate collector, a kind of Sultan of Stuff. He is the anti-Marie Kondo. Rather than preach the virtues of shedding, like that Japanese author, Sellers, 83, roams yard sales and flea markets like Diogenes searching for an honest man.

The jewels of design he has uncovered amid the jetsam are now enshrined in the Madsonian, named for his beloved Mad River Valley. If the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is America's attic, the Madsonian is America's garage.

"I've been collecting for 25 years," Sellers said. "I realized there was no museum dedicated to industrial design."

It's a small museum, a rabbit warren of rooms in an old house. But it represents a big idea: that design can be beautiful as well as functional.

In his improvisational approach to designing houses, Sellers not only thinks outside the box, he also blows up the box and reconstitutes it to suit his whims. He is an advocate of using poured concrete in houses to help create energy efficiency.

Sleds on display at the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sleds on display at the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design

Sellers is credited with originating the design-build process in which the designer carries the project through to completion rather than handing it over to a builder. In the 1970s, he cofounded a wind power company that today is a successful developer of wind turbines. He once said that permanence is dependent on "artistic infusement," which explains why, in selecting objects for the Madsonian, he prizes design over practicality.

"You see beautifully designed things at a flea market or someone's home," Sellers explained during a preview of the exhibit. "I got interested in the design of the sled and how you actually do it, and I just started accumulating these things.

"A friend, Dan Reicher, contributed about 10 of them," he went on. "To me, it's just one of those things that demonstrates human creativity."

But creativity is only part of Sellers' fascination with sleds. He also likes the simplicity of enjoying snow without the encumbrance of ski paraphernalia or lift lines. Gravity is an inexhaustible energy source, he noted, and any backyard hill a suitable testing ground.

"So, the whole idea of this product is designed around just laughing your butt off and having a lot of fun," he said, guffawing.

"The History of Sledding" doesn't offer much historical background. A little research reveals that the word "sled" comes from the Old English verb sildan — to slide — and historians have traced the origin of sledding back several millennia.

Germanic tribes reportedly used their shields as sleds when they crossed the Alps into Italy to battle the Romans around 101 BC. Russian aristos in the mid-17th century thought it would be fun to send their privileged offspring skidding down wooden tracks on blocks of ice. In 1904, archaeologists unearthed a Viking ship on the Oseberg farm in Norway and found rudimentary sleds aboard. The vessel was buried around 834, scientists said.

Sellers has collected a couple dozen sleds made in the early 1900s. These include a standing model that looks like a product of a high school shop class, as well as a single ski with a seat bolted to it called a "ski jack." The ingenious Swedish kälke has a steering wheel that turns a smaller wheel, which pulls the runners left or right. There are various iterations of the classic Flexible Flyer — a wooden platform bolted to metal runners — which was fabricated by different makers, and an early model of the Snurfer — or snow surfer — a precursor of the snowboard.

Manager Darcy Lee and founder Dave Sellers - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Manager Darcy Lee and founder Dave Sellers

As a Vermonter, Sellers found all those renderings basically inadequate. "Unless you're on a road here, you can't use these sleds," he asserted. "What you need is a kind of backcountry sled."

So in 1987, he and fellow architect Jim Sanford created the Mad River Rocket, a go-anywhere, deep snow-friendly plastic projectile. The rider kneels on something that resembles a short, shallow canoe and steers by shifting weight or using their hands.

"The Rocket goes where skis cannot," Sellers said, as we watched videos displaying the sled's versatility, including one of his son Parker careening down Camel's Hump through a terrifying thicket of trees. An entire room of the museum is devoted to the Rocket.

I remarked to Sellers that the only repository I'd visited that resembles the Madsonian was the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa., an all-concrete structure built by archaeologist Henry Chapman Mercer to house his vast collection of preindustrial hand tools and related household items.

"I know that place," said Sellers, a fellow advocate for poured concrete structures.

As an avid gallery rat, I've found myself trying to suppress my green-eyed monster while gazing upon art treasures with placards noting the name of a lender. I've envied not only possessing the lucre to acquire the piece but also the noblesse oblige inherent in sharing the treasured object.

I do not have an Henri Matisse or Marc Chagall to spare, but I did have something to add to the new Madsonian exhibit: a Russian sled, circa 1986, constructed of wood and metal with a circular back. I bought it when I was a newspaper correspondent in Russia decades ago. The cost of acquisition: a few rubles worth about $2 and some highly coveted blank VHS tapes. Sellers was delighted.

And there it sits: a Russian sled. With a placard that bears my name.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Blade Runners"

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