By Courtney H. Diener-Stokes
Brian Bortz came across one of his most prized possessions at a yard sale approximately 30 years ago. It’s a wooden sled. And it’s almost 150 years old. “They actually have the year 1870 carved into the sled itself,” Bortz, 68, said of the 4-foot long sled. “I didn’t know it when I bought it. It was so dirty until I cleaned it up.” When he saw the date, he had to stop to think.
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“It just struck me that was only five years after (President Abraham) Lincoln was assassinated,” he said. “It blew me away to think of the people around it and the events that happened during that time.”
His barn is overflowing with antiques he has collected over the past 35 years, but the sled is one of his finds that stands out. “I would be hard-pressed to get rid of it because I’ll never come across anything like that again; it just doesn’t happen,” said Bortz, an avid collector.
Bortz has over 100 sleds among his various collections, which include antique storage trunks (200), railroad and barn lanterns (close to 500 hanging from his barn ceiling), loads of stoneware, jugs and crocks (500 to 600) and a diverse array of wooden tools. “I have pretty much everything for anyone who wanted to keep house like they did in the 1800s,” he said.
Bortz acquired some of his sleds through a tip from a friend, who told him a sled works in Massachusetts was going out of business. For a time he also acquired sleds through Merritt’s Antiques, also in Berks County, as well as on trips out of state, various flea markets and privately. Another of Bortz’s prized items is a toboggan that is approximately 14-feet-long that he bought from a friend who lives in Boyertown, Pennsylvania.
“He said his dad had it,” Bortz said. “I have never seen anything in that size in that condition in all of the years I’ve been fooling around.”
“It is pure wood, it could have been homemade, whoever made it knew what he was doing,” Bortz said. “It is in prime condition. It was well done.”
Bortz remembered when he realized he couldn’t part with it. “I had a guy that stopped in who had a ski resort up north who wanted to put it above a mantle in the ski lodge,” he said. “At that time, I couldn’t part with it.”
Bortz’s Gooseneck Sled Find
Brian Bortz has one gooseneck sled in his collection that he found over 20 years ago through Merritt’s Antiques. He said the sled he has is almost as rare a find as his 1870 sled. Bortz explained that what makes the gooseneck style of sled unique is the carving of the wood at the head of the sled that is shaped like a goose’s neck. Due to the process of craftsmanship involved, Bortz believes there weren’t many made, and that most of those that were made are now in the hands of collectors. In all of his travels in search of antiques over the years, Bortz said he has never come across another one.
Bortz estimates the sleds in his collection were built between 1860 and 1925. “These are the old ones,” he said. “There is no metal on them (except for a small thin sheet of metal on the bottom of the runner). They didn’t even use nails. Everything is handcrafted and put together. It is really something.”
Bortz said this type of assembly is based on the mortise and tenon joint woodworking method. “They would cut out where the wood would fit together; the wood fits together like a puzzle,” he said. The craftsmanship associated with these sleds is virtually nonexistent today. “These artisans took pride in their work,” Bortz said. “You won’t find anybody that does that today because it is time consuming.”
He has a deep appreciation for items that are made to stand the test of time. “It is one hundred years old and it is still standing as they made it,” he said, referring to antiques in his collection. “Today things only last for about 10 years.”
Going back in time
For Bortz, part of the allure of antiques involves going back in time with each item he acquires. “I think that is the main thing that drives me,” he said. “It is part of history. Nobody makes them anymore. These items will be here forever if they get into the right hands and are well taken care of.”
Bortz is downsizing his abundance of antiques, which convey the amount of time he has invested over the years as well as his passion for collecting. “Everybody gets to a point where they say, ‘What am I going to do with this stuff?’ ” he said. “I’d like to get it to people who would appreciate it.”
Joe Miller, AtticExplorer.com
Thanks to Jim Kerr of the Reading Eagle for permission to reprint this article on AtticExplorers.com. It was written by Courtney H. Diener-Stokes with photos by Susan L. Angstadt and originally appeared in the December 20, 2013 edition of the paper.
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