Wow. It’s a long drive to Denver, Missouri.
But that’s where you have to go to find Bill Engel -- in his glory.
He’s got a captive audience, today--a church group from Kearney, Missouri and they’re impressed.
“These sleighs are fascinating!” says one man, touring the prized contents of one of Engel's old buildings.
Bill not only looks like Santa, he’s also into sleighs.
“And the third characteristic is how heavy they are!" he tells the group, lifting and old sleigh from the 1800s. "I mean they are a horse killer!”
No one has more sleighs than he does.
“I’ve never seen this many in this condition!” exclaims another member of the tour group.
He has nearly 300 sleighs in all. Engel started collecting 16 years ago when he saw an old sleigh purchased at an auction, then immediately torn apart.
“I said ‘what are you doing?’ And they said ‘all we want are the runners.’ And I said ‘what for?’ and they said ‘we’re going to cut them down and make coffee tables.’
He was offended—and started buying all he could find. Many are from Iowa.
“I don’t redo the sleighs, I try to stabilize them,” Engel tells the group.
He doesn't actually use the sleighs, as most are now too fragile or dilapidated. But grouped inside his buildings, the intricate sleighs make a great setting for a history class.
“I grew up in Louisiana," says visitor Rod Schrivener. "We didn’t have much need for a sleigh down there!”
The group learns there were more than 5,000 sleigh manufacturers in America at the turn of the 20th century. A prominent factory was the Kratzer Carriage Company of Des Moines. Others include Studebaker and John Deere.
This is one part collection, one part shelter.
“I’ve inherited sleighs from people I didn’t even know," Engel says. "They would call and they would say ‘I’m getting old and I want somebody to have my sleigh.’”
He gives regular tours, and takes regular phone calls from sleigh owners who need (good) advice.
“They tell me they went to Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart said ‘get this good latex and this will take care of it!'" he laughs.
Don’t paint an old sleigh. Don't do any restoration. Just clean it off and call Bill. “I’ll be glad to help them anyway I can,” he says, sincerely.
Now it’s Bill who needs some help. He’s 77 and recently lost his wife. He needs a plan.
“I have sold some to museums to try to save ‘em,” he says.
He’d like to place them all in museums, he won't sell to pickers who'd seek to break down the sleighs for their parts. In fact, selling for profit is something he's never done.
“I’ve repeatedly had people come down and wanted to buy this one and offer me a big check and I just had to tell them ‘no.’”
So, all he can do is keep sharing his love with those who call or stop by for a tour. In doing that, maybe he’ll connect with the right person and the next great sleigh collector will make the long drive to Denver.
For more on Bill's sleighs check out www.sleighworks.com.