October 2, 2014

Medina
Partly sunny
51°F

Medina’s Flexible Flyer inspires fond memories

When you’re a kid, and you grow up with a certain iconic brand, sometimes you think it’s the only brand there is. Later in life, we find there are others that may be just as good or better, but none can replace the original in our fond memories.

I thought all soup was Campbell’s Soup. All trucks were Tonka trucks. All motor oil was Quaker State. And in my little mind, all sleds were Flexible Flyers.

There’s nothing like the graceful arc of a Flexible Flyer piled with kids as it steers down a snowy hillside. For a short time, some 40 years ago, the arc of this famous sled steered right through Medina, where it was produced from 1969 to ’73.

a1mg_clr5colflyers1-b In this 1969 photo, workers pose with some of the Flexible Flyer sleds made at the Medina plant. (Ohio Historical Society photo)

It was patented in 1889 by a New Jersey farm equipment maker named Samuel Allen. Writer Joan Palicia tells the story in her book, “Flexible Flyer and Other Great Sleds” (Schiffer Publishing, 1997).

Because farm equipment was a seasonal business, Allen searched for a way to keep his factory busy with a product that could be manufactured in the summer and sold in the winter. He turned to an unusual source for ideas: the dictionary. Allen got all the way down to the letter “s” before he found his inspiration.

The word “sled.”

After testing designs on “coasting” hills in New Jersey, New York and Vermont, he decided to replace traditional wooden runners with flexible steel, creating the steerable sled that became known as the Flexible Flyer.

It was not an instantaneous hit, Palicia wrote. Like sledding itself, you have to climb the hill before you can enjoy the ride.

Allen stuck with it. His break came in 1900 when Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia and Macy’s in New York agreed to stock the Flexible Flyer for Christmas.

Allen’s sled was off to the races with great model names like Airline Chief, Firefly Special, Yankee Clipper (“New as Tomorrow — Fleet as the Wind”) and the Flexy Racer with wheels.

By 1915, he was selling up to 2,000 a day and the steerable sled’s status as an American icon was secure. Richard Byrd took Flexible Flyers along on his 1928 expedition to the South Pole. The sled even played an important cameo part in the 1947 Christmas classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.”

In 1968, the Allen family sold its company to Los Angeles-based Leisure Group Inc., which also acquired an Ohio-based swing set maker, Blazon. A year later, Leisure Group began building Flexible Flyer sleds in Medina at a plant on Lake Road.

That’s where Wadsworth’s Joyce Anderson got a job as a single mom with two young kids. At 66, she still has an eye for sleds.

“I could look at a sled today and tell you whether it’s a good one or not,” she said.

It’s all in the rivets. They had to be true and strong to hold the sled together, Anderson said. Then she’d look at the handlebar. If it moved smoothly for good steering, then it was a good sled.

Anderson worked in the metal shop, where oily steel straps were formed into sled runners. The metal got hot when it ran through the bender, she recalled.

Anderson got a good burn once when she rested an arm on a machine where some of the runners had been sitting.

She liked operating the metal presses, but the wood shop, where the other components of the sleds were assembled, was another story.

“I couldn’t work the nailer to save my life,” she said with a laugh. “I’d crack the boards and everything.”

It was a good place to work, Anderson said. It was mostly women who ran the presses. Men set the dies on the machines and worked in the warehouse.

A 1969 photograph on file with the Ohio Historical Society shows five women with different styles of Flexible Flyer sleds outside the Leisure Group building.

“We were busy,” said Anderson. “We had to make sleds for the whole country.”

But, tough sledding was ahead. One day, Anderson and other employees arrived at work to find they no longer had jobs.

Deeply in debt and facing bankruptcy, the company closed its Medina factory and consolidated in Mississippi.

In Palicia’s history of the Flexible Flyer, then-company president C. Garland Dempsey attributed a decline in sales to the demand for less-expensive plastic sledding gear.

Though its tenure in Medina was relatively short, Samuel Allen’s Flexible Flyer is alive and well today, still coursing down hills and through the memories of anyone who ever piled on with siblings and friends and steered down a snowy slope.

When she worked at the factory, Anderson gave a Medina-made Flexible Flyer to her son, Thad. He may be grown, but he has no plans to get rid of it. It’s a family keepsake.

“He says, ‘I can’t get rid of that. … My mom made those!’ ” Anderson said.

If you have Flexible Flyer memories — or other epic sledding stories, for that matter — send them my way. Perhaps they’ll be included in a future column.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@ohio.net.