I woke to single-digit temperatures and negative wind chills the other day. It wasn’t the first day of cold, nor will it be the last for this winter. It’s only December, which has always been a busy travel time for me, and keeping an eye out for snowstorms occupies much of my travel plans. My little family has crisscrossed the frozen Midwest dozens of times. Tied for our most harrowing journeys are (1) getting caught in a South Dakota snowstorm that forced us to find shelter at a ranch house and (2) driving from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan across the Mackinac Bridge less than a half hour before it was closed due to high winds and snow. Both of these trips happened around New Year’s, and both were made in the little rusted-out two-wheel-drive Pontiac-Grand-Am-that-could.
The Grand Am had a little more horsepower than Almanzo Wilder’s cutter had when he and Laura Ingalls were caught in the horse-drawn vehicle as a snowstorm roared across the frozen plains of eastern Dakota Territory (Pioneer Girl, pp. 264–66). Even though the Grand Am’s heater worked (occasionally), I did think about finding a buffalo blanket for the emergency bag that we re-packed each winter.
In thinking about this post, I wondered what the difference was between a cutter and a sleigh. Thanks to the Internet, it did not take me long to find out that largely it is a question of size.1 Cutters are a type of sleigh. Generally, sleighs accommodated larger groups, while cutters were sufficient for two people. Cutters were usually used for courting, as Wilder recalled in These Happy Golden Years in the chapter titled “Jingle Bells” (pp. 89–94). A racing cutter was likely the inspiration for James Pierport’s 1857 tune “Jingle Bells.” 2
Re-reading Wilder’s dangerous journey through temperatures dipping 45 degrees below zero, I’m thankful for a warm apartment and for finally having a four-wheel drive vehicle. Throughout the afternoon as I wrote of cutters and sleighs, the temperature warmed to the teens and low twenties, but I know another winter is upon us. If the last five winters are any indication, I’ll soon be driving in the dark, with wind-chills somewhere around negative thirty or forty and fifty-mile-per-hour winds whipping my vehicle back and forth. In that moment, I know I will be thankful for heated seats.
1. Kimberly Turtenwald, “The Difference between a Cutter & a Sleigh,” Gone Outdoors, goneoutdoors.com/difference-between-cutter-sleigh-8560748.html; “Sled” and “Cutter: Sleigh,” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com.
2. “History: One Horse Open Sleigh,” Equestrian Culture, equestrianculture.com/custom_type/one-horse-open-sleigh. See also Joel Brown, “Jingle Bells’ History Takes Surprising Turn, BU Today, Dec. 8, 2016, www.bu.edu/today/2016/jingle-bells-history/.