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ON SECOND THOUGHT

Flexible Flyer, king of sleds, slides on

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 25, 2011
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Is there anything more Americana, more Christmas, than the Flexible Flyer? Invented in 1889 by Samuel Leeds Allen, whose Philadelphia-based company was best known for farm equipment, the steerable sleds with the iconic eagle logo were sold by the millions in the years before and after both World Wars and long after the company was sold in the 1960s.

“The Christmas gift every live boy and girl wants,’’ boasted an early 1900s print advertisement. “Saves shoes, prevents colds, and saves doctor’s bills, because you don’t drag your feet in steering.’’

The steering function was what separated Allen’s model, originally designed for his daughter Elizabeth, from the rest of the sledding pack. Riders, be they seated or belly-down on the sled’s white ash slats, used feet or hands to manipulate the revolutionary front-end steering mechanism. The T-shaped sled was the sport’s better mousetrap, and though it was initially slow to sell as the 20th century approached, it soon became a coveted American standard, the S.L. Allen Co. selling 2,000 sleds a day by 1915.

When it came to winter sports, generations of American kids had but a snow-covered neighborhood hill or a patch of outdoor ice, perhaps a frozen pond or river, as their outdoor choices. They sledded or they skated, and that was about it. Skiing, much like golf, was typically not within the reach of the middle class. Snowboarding had yet to even reach product development inside Santa’s sporting goods store.

Contrary to what you might read online, the Flexible Flyer still lives, its manufacturing today under the direction of Paricon LLC in South Paris, Maine. There is an irony in that, because Paricon traces its roots to Paris Sleds, which for decades competed against the Flexible Flyer steel-runner sled with its made-in-Maine “Speedaway.’’

“Were we better? Of course we were!’’ kidded 76-year-old Hank Morton, whose great grandfather, Henry, founded the Paris Manufacturing Company in the middle of the 19th century, producing sleds that today are cherished collector’s items. “It was us against the mighty competition and, proudly, we held our own.’’

By early in the 1980s, though, things really began to go downhill for the few companies that made the much-loved sleds. The reason? Weather. Or lack of it.

“Two snowless winters, 1980 and 1981, just killed it,’’ offered Morton. “Sure, materials began to change, too, with the use of more plastics in sleds and what we call ‘snow toys.’ But it didn’t snow much at all throughout the US in those winters, and after that, retailers sort of forgot about us.’’

For the Flexible Flyer, the corporate unraveling began sooner, initially with the sale of S.L. Allen Co. in 1968 to Leisure Group of Los Angeles. Five years later, the sled line was spun off to private investors, and then again in 1993 to Roadmaster, the bicycle maker.

Through the sales and transitions, the Flexible Flyer was produced for years in places such as West Point, Miss., and DuQuoin, Ill. And by 1998, the sled that schoolgirl Elizabeth Allen in the 1880s first steered down the hills of Ivystone Farm in Westfield, N.J., was being produced exclusively in China.

“Most of our steel-runner sleds are still made in China,’’ said Morton, who in 2005, with sons Ted and Tom, bought the Flexible Flyer manufacturing rights from a company named Cerberus (in Greek mythology, the three-headed hound that guards hell). “Some of them are made here in [Oxford] Maine, and it’s our goal that eventually all Flexible Flyers are made here.

“People say they want to buy American-made goods, but then you start talking price and, well . . . then the discussion changes.’’

Paricon today produces the iconic Flexible Flyer in four lengths, 42-, 48-, 54-, and 60-inch. According to Morton, the 48-incher is the most popular and retails for $90. Just as in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, you’ll typically find them wedged next to the snow shovels and 10-pound bags of sand at your local hardware store, but you’re also apt to see them these days at one of the big box sporting goods stores. Catalog and Internet sales represent a good chunk of the business, too, said Morton.

“There’s still quite a bit of nostalgia attached to the sled and the logo,’’ he said, noting that some of the classic sleds are purchased solely as decorative pieces, their steel runners never to be chilled lower than room temperature. “That logo is the magic. It’s the name everyone associates with sleds.’’

With no apologies necessary for Morton or his family’s cherished Speedaway, the Flexible Flyer was the lion in winter, the top of the winter sports food chain. It was at the vanguard of America’s craving for brand names. It was the Cadillac of the industry when Cadillac was king of the road. Millions upon millions of American children, from the age of 4 on up, scribbled “Flexible Flyer’’ at the top of their wish lists to Santa.

The sled and its logo - an eagle clutching a bunch of arrows in its claws, fronted by a Flexible Flyer banner - made winter winter, made Christmas Christmas, transformed no-school snow days into magical escapades filled with countless runs down backyard hills.

So simple by today’s standards, but totally satisfying. Exhausting. Inebriating. The day wasn’t done until the Flexible Flyer was spiked in a snow bank near the backdoor, steerable front end pointed skyward, within easy reach for tomorrow’s fun. Snow-caked mittens and knit cap left to melt on the floor behind the kitchen door.

In the world of today’s sled sales, said Morton, the old-style steel-runner sled is a niche product. He remembers days in the 1970s when his family’s company cranked out 400,000 Speedaway models a year, going head-to-head with Flexible Flyer. Now, he said, annual production of the same steel-runner Flexible Flyer is less than 10 percent of that figure.

These days Paricon places its Flexible Flyer logo on all manner of outdoor sports/recreation items and snow toys. The most popular item, said Morton, is the PT Blaster, made of durable plastic. The sleek PT looks a lot like a snowmobile, allowing the rider to sit on a seat mounted on two runners and hold a steering wheel, which controls a short single lead ski. By no means your granddaddy’s FF.

“Put 100 kids on a slope,’’ mused Morton, “and they all want to ride it. That’s the one. We call it our S-2000 PT Blaster.’’

But it, too, is a Flexible Flyer, a cousin of the old standard that rides on to this day. There is true comfort in that for those of us who remember the delight in peeling back the Christmas wrapping paper and finding that logo on a shiny new sled.

It’s a memory full of tinsel and ornaments, frozen toes and fingers, apple-red cheeks, tiny marshmallows floating atop steaming cups of hot chocolate, and falling to sleep by the fireplace and waking up the next morning to hit the hill all . . . over . . . again.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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