Tucked away in the Grayslake Heritage Center and Museum Annex with the other large artifacts in the collections of the Grayslake Historical Society is a horse-drawn cutter, or sleigh, that plays a prominent role in the Christmas holiday celebration season at the museum, 164 Hawley St.
Sleigh and cutter are words that are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. The museum's artifact is a cutter because it has only one seat for two people to cuddle during a swishing ride drawn by one horse through the snow. A sleigh has a front and back seat for family enjoyment and can be drawn by more than one horse.
The museum's cutter comes out in its full glory decorated with colorful bows, Christmas greenery and interesting, colorful quilts during the Christmas holiday season. This year it is in the foyer of the museum where Santa greeted children and adults during the Grayslake Historical Society's sponsored Christmas open house. Many kids, sitting on Santa's lap, told him their Christmas wishes and had their picture taken. In past years, Mrs. Claus also welcomed guests.
The cutter was donated to the museum in 1997 by Helen Hook, the widow of Del Hook, a longtime Grayslake civic leader and pharmacist who owned and operated several drug stores at different times at various locations throughout the village. His last was the Walgreen agency at 161 Center St. that he operated between 1957 and 1973, when he sold it to Edward Brunner.
Their daughter, Mary Hook, said the cutter originally came from John Louis Hook, her grandfather, from his farm on Rollins Road, where the K-mart shopping center now is in Round Lake Beach. She said her grandfather, known as Lou to many, was married in 1906 "and I am assuming he had it then." The Del Hook family lived on acreage on Route 83, now the site of Grayslake North High School. Mary Hook said the cutter was stored in the barn there for several years until her mother decided to donate it to the Grayslake Historical Society for its museum.
The cutter has no manufacturer's markings or any other identification. It very well could have been hand-made in the late 19th century or perhaps refurbished.
Most sources note that a cutter is a lightweight, open, horse-drawn sleigh that was introduced about 1800 in the United States. It usually had a single seat that held two people, but some had a second seat for two that could be removed and some had a child's seat that could be folded out.
Many styles exist but the most popular were those that have curved runners and colorfully-decorated bodies.
Before automobiles became popular, many people traveled by horse and buggy in the summer and by sleigh or cutter in the winter.
Another major difference between a cutter and a sleigh is the size. Cutters were created for leisurely driving while sleighs were built to accommodate a larger group with more space.
According to one Internet source, the runners were made differently for the cutter and the sleigh. Because the cutter was used for longer, slower rides, the runners are straighter, which means the cutter is meant to keep going straight. While it can be turned, turns must be taken slowly and wider than normal. The sleigh's runners are placed closer together, which allows for easier turns, taken wide and slow.
While the primary use of both a cutter and a sleigh is transportation in the snowy winter months, they each have their own individual purpose. Because cutters offered a cozier ride with all occupants sitting close together, cutters were often used for courting. In modern times, they offer romantic rides for couples in the winter.
The sleigh is large enough to accommodate an entire family or a large group of friends. Sleighs were most often used to transport the family to church or another family member's home. Some companies still use sleighs during the winter months to offer rides to visitors.
The construction of cutters and sleighs also differ. The cutter is built lower to the ground and requires more flexibility to ensure the jarring of the road does not break the structure. The builder often uses a glue to secure the boards together.
The construction of the sleigh is sturdier and more rigid. Because the sleigh sits much higher than a cutter, the runners absorb more of the shock and protect the sleigh's structure.
The Grayslake Heritage Center and Museum, 164 Hawley St., Grayslake, is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and during downtown community events.